Disrupted Nerve Cell Function and Tinnitus

By Xiping Zhan, Ph.D.

Tinnitus is a condition in which one hears a ringing and/or buzzing sound in the ear without an external sound source, and as a chronic condition it can be associated with depression, anxiety, and stress. Tinnitus has been linked to hearing loss, with the majority of tinnitus cases occurring in the presence of hearing loss. For military service members and individuals who are constantly in an environment where loud noise is generated, it is a major health issue.

This figure shows the quinine effect on the physiology of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, a structure in the midbrain.

This figure shows the quinine effect on the physiology of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, a structure in the midbrain.

During this phantom ringing/buzzing sensation, neurons in the auditory cortex continue to fire in the absence of a sound source, or even after deafferentation following the loss of auditory hair cells. The underlying mechanisms of tinnitus are not yet known.

In our paper published in the journal Neurotoxicity Research in July 2018, my team and I examined chemical-induced tinnitus as a side effect of medication. Tinnitus patients who have chemical-induced tinnitus comprise a significant portion of all tinnitus sufferers, and approaching this type of tinnitus can help us to understand tinnitus in general.

We focused on quinine, an antimalarial drug that also causes hearing loss and tinnitus. We theorized this is due to the disruption of dopamine neurons rather than cochlear hair cells through the blockade of neuronal ion channels in the auditory system. We found that dopamine neurons are more sensitive than the hair cells or ganglion neurons in the auditory system. To a lesser extent, quinine also causes muscle reactions such as tremors and spasms (dystonia) and the loss of control over body movements (ataxia).

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As dopaminergic neurons (nerve cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine) are implicated in playing a role in all of these diseases, we tested the toxicity of quinine on induced dopaminergic neurons derived from human pluripotent stem cells and isolated dopaminergic neurons from the mouse brain.

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We found that quinine can affect the basic physiological function of dopamine neurons in humans and mice. Specifically, we found it can target and disturb the hyperpolarization-dependent ion channels in dopamine neurons. This toxicity of quinine may underlie the movement disorders and depression seen in quinine overdoses (cinchonism), and understanding this mechanism will help to learn how dopamine plays a role in tinnitus modulation.

A 2015 ERG scientist, Xiping Zhan, Ph.D., received the Les Paul Foundation Award for Tinnitus Research. He is an assistant professor of physiology and biophysics at Howard University in Washington, D.C. One figure from the paper appeared on the cover of the July 2018 issue of Neurotoxicity Research.

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