Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Joseph P. Walton, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Robert Frisina, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Bo Ding, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Nathan Gallant, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Christopher Passaglia, Ph.D.


Presbycusis, ion channels, electrophysiology, neuromodulation, inferior colliculus


The auditory temporal processing deficits associated with age-dependent hearing decline have been increasingly attributed to issues beyond peripheral hearing loss. Age-related hearing loss (ARHL), also known as presbycusis, is linked with changes in the expression of both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the central auditory system. There are also age-related changes in the expression and function of the ion channels which mediate action potential firing. The slow, Ca2+ activated, K+ channels of the BK-type are essential in controlling both neurotransmitter release and neural communication via alteration of action potential durations, firing frequency, and neural adaptation. There are many subsets of this type of ion channel located throughout the body, and though it is evident that these channels are involved in cellular activation within the peripheral auditory system, little is known about their contribution to auditory processing in the brain. There is a need for further understanding of the functional involvement and mechanisms of neurotransmitter loss and how this relates to the BK channel and auditory disorders such as presbycusis and tinnitus (the perception of a phantom sound). My research focused on investigating how the downregulation of neurotransmitter production and the reductions in BK channel expression affect ARHL. I also evaluated a custom BK-channel modulating peptide as a path towards a possible therapeutic intervention for age-related hearing loss. This custom peptide is especially useful because it reduces the potential for serious side effects, due to mechanisms which best mimic natural occurring peptide systems.

The initial investigation described in this dissertation measured auditory system changes in aged mice that occurred following a drug-induced increase in the availability of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. This increase in GABA decreased minimum response thresholds in the auditory midbrain of aged mice, bringing them to levels seen in young adult animals. The other changes that occurred following increased GABA availability were increased acoustically driven neuronal firing rates, frequency-dependent decreases in spontaneous rates, and increases in the symmetry of the receptive fields. The return of clear and fine-tuned acoustically-evoked responses in aged mice was a major finding of this experiment.

The second phase of the dissertation built on this demonstration that modulation of the aged auditory system was possible by changing neurotransmitter levels. This second portion of the study focused on how a novel potent neuropeptide (LS3), which increases the probability of the BK channel remaining in the closed conformational state, might invoke alterations in auditory-evoked responses. First, the LS3 neuropeptide was used to modify addictive behavior in the C. Elegans; followed by evaluation of in vitro changes to a human cell line. This study then confirmed that LS3 is a potent BK channel modulator with a greater affinity than those known toxins classified as high-affinity toxins. In vivo testing demonstrated that LS3 could rapidly cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB) following systemic injections, where it altered auditory evoked activity in a manner similar to that of the direct application to the dura over the midbrain. This work demonstrates that the BK channel is highly responsible for the control of auditory-evoked neurological processes, and that a potent BK channel modulator may be useful for the treatment of certain neurological disorders.

The third study was designed to confirm that the BK channel plays an important role in sound-evoked activity generated in the auditory midbrain, by testing the effects of a general BK channel pore blocker, PAX. The results established that the BK channel is vital for sound processing in the midbrain of young adult mice, and is responsible for the maintenance of receptive field properties. I also evaluated the role it plays in temporal processing, which is an underlying mechanism for the processing of neurologically-relevant complex acoustic signals such as speech. Here, blocking of the channel increased (worsened) the threshold for the detection of a silent gap-in-noise and the neural recovery functions that occurred following the stimuli.

The fourth study significantly expanded the in vivo testing of the custom peptide channel blocker, LS3, and added a behavioral measure of changes to auditory perception in addition to the electrophysiology recordings. The auditory-evoked receptive fields from midbrain neurons were modulated in a dose-dependent manner following the application of LS3. The neural recordings took place in the inferior colliculus, where the dorsal region responds to low-frequency sounds and ventral areas to high frequencies. The LS3-induced suppression or enhancement of evoked responses was different for the various tonotopic regions of the auditory midbrain. The improvements shown in receptive fields and improvement in auditory perception indicates a plausible route for direct translational treatment of auditory disorders through small custom peptide therapeutics. These studies provide supportive information about how auditory evoked responses in the midbrain, including the coding of different sound features, are affected by the down-regulation of a key inhibitory neurotransmitter (GABA), and how GABA-dependent neural evoked responses are altered in older mice through the modulation of BK channel activity.