• acetylcholine;
  • brainstem;
  • gap junctions;
  • glutamatergic transmission;
  • nicotinic receptors;
  • nucleus hypoglossus


Patch-clamp recording from hypoglossal motoneurons in neonatal Wistar rat brainstem slices was used to investigate the electrophysiological effects of bath-applied nicotine (10 µm). While nicotine consistently evoked membrane depolarization (or inward current under voltage clamp), it also induced electrical oscillations (3–13 Hz; lasting for ≥ 8.5 min) on 40% of motoneurons. Oscillations required activation of nicotinic receptors sensitive to dihydro-β-erythroidine (0.5 µm) or methyllycaconitine (5 nm), and were accompanied by enhanced frequency of spontaneous glutamatergic events. The slight voltage dependence of oscillations and their block by the gap junction blocker, carbenoxolone, suggest they originate from electrically coupled neurons. Network nicotinic receptors desensitized more slowly than motoneuron ones, demonstrating that network receptors remained active longer to support heightened release of the endogenous glutamate necessary for enhancing the network excitability. The ionotropic glutamate receptor antagonist, 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione (CNQX), and the group I metabotropic receptor antagonist, (RS)-1-aminoindan-1,5-dicarboxylic acid (AIDA), suppressed oscillations, while the NMDA receptor antagonist, d-amino-phosphonovaleriate (APV), produced minimal depression. Nicotine-evoked oscillations constrained spike firing at low rates, although motoneurons could still generate high-frequency trains of action potentials with unchanged gain for input depolarization. This is the first demonstration that persistent activation of nicotinic receptors could cause release of endogenous glutamate to evoke sustained oscillations in the theta frequency range. As this phenomenon likely represented a powerful process to coordinate motor output to tongue muscles, our results outline neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) as a novel target for pharmacological enhancement of motoneuron output in motor dysfunction.