Mutation of the Cacna1a gene for the P/Q (CaV2.1) calcium channel invariably leads to cerebellar dysfunction. The dysfunction has been attributed to disrupted rhythmicity of cerebellar Purkinje cells, but the hypothesis remains unproven. If irregular firing rates cause cerebellar dysfunction, then the irregularity and behavioral deficits should covary in a series of mutant strains of escalating severity. We compared firing irregularity in floccular and anterior vermis Purkinje cells in the mildly affected rocker and moderately affected tottering Cacna1a mutants and normal C57BL/6 mice. We also measured the amplitude and timing of modulations of floccular Purkinje cell firing rate during the horizontal vestibuloocular reflex (VOR, 0.25-1 Hz) and the horizontal and vertical optokinetic reflex (OKR, 0.125-1 Hz). We recorded Purkinje cells selective for rotational stimulation about the vertical axis (VAPCs) and a horizontal axis (HAPCs). Irregularity scaled with behavioral deficit severity in the flocculus but failed to do so in the vermis, challenging the irregularity hypothesis. Mutant VAPCs exhibited unusually strong modulation during VOR and OKR, the response augmentation scaling with phenotypic severity. HAPCs exhibited increased OKR modulation but in tottering only. The data contradict prior claims that modulation amplitude is unaffected in tottering but support the idea that attenuated compensatory eye movements in Cacna1a mutants arise from defective transfer of Purkinje cell signals to downstream circuitry, rather than attenuated synaptic transmission within the cerebellar cortex. Shifts in the relative sizes of the VAPC and HAPC populations raise the possibility that Cacna1a mutations influence the development of floccular zone architecture.
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