Rodent models of audiogenic seizures, in which seizures are precipitated by an abnormal response of the brain to auditory stimuli, are crucial to investigate the neural bases underlying ictogenesis. Despite significant advances in understanding seizure generation in the inferior colliculus, namely the epileptogenic nucleus, little is known about the contribution of lower auditory stations to the seizure-prone network. Here, we examined the cochlea and cochlear nucleus of the genetic audiogenic seizure hamster from Salamanca (GASH/Sal), a model of reflex epilepsy that exhibits generalized tonic-clonic seizures in response to loud sound. GASH/Sal animals under seizure-free conditions were compared with matched control hamsters in a multi-technical approach that includes auditory brainstem responses (ABR) testing, histology, scanning electron microscopy analysis, immunohistochemistry, quantitative morphometry and gene expression analysis (RT-qPCR). The cochlear histopathology of the GASH/Sal showed preservation of the sensory hair cells, but a significant loss of spiral ganglion neurons and mild atrophy of the stria vascularis. At the electron microscopy level, the reticular lamina exhibited disarray of stereociliary tufts with blebs, loss or elongated stereocilia as well as non-parallel rows of outer hair cells due to protrusions of Deiters' cells. At the molecular level, the abnormal gene expression patterns of prestin, cadherin 23, protocadherin 15, vesicular glutamate transporters 1 (Vglut1) and -2 (Vglut2) indicated that the hair-cell mechanotransduction and cochlear amplification were markedly altered. These were manifestations of a cochlear neuropathy that correlated to ABR waveform I alterations and elevated auditory thresholds. In the cochlear nucleus, the distribution of VGLUT2-immunolabeled puncta was differently affected in each subdivision, showing significant increases in magnocellular regions of the ventral cochlear nucleus and drastic reductions in the granule cell domain. This modified inputs lead to disruption of Vglut1 and Vglut2 gene expression in the cochlear nucleus. In sum, our study provides insight into the morphological and molecular traits associated with audiogenic seizure susceptibility in the GASH/Sal, suggesting an upward spread of abnormal glutamatergic transmission throughout the primary acoustic pathway to the epileptogenic region.

Keywords: Animal models of epilepsy; Audiogenic seizures; Cochlear neuropathy; Cochlear nucleus; Spiral ganglion neurons; VGLUT.

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