Spontaneous activity in the developing auditory system.
Spontaneous electrical activity is a common feature of sensory systems during early development. This sensory-independent neuronal activity has been implicated in promoting their survival and maturation, as well as growth and refinement of their projections to yield circuits that can rapidly extract information about the external world. Periodic bursts of action potentials occur in auditory neurons of mammals before hearing onset. This activity is induced by inner hair cells (IHCs) within the developing cochlea, which establish functional connections with spiral ganglion neurons (SGNs) several weeks before they are capable of detecting external sounds. During this pre-hearing period, IHCs fire periodic bursts of Ca(2+) action potentials that excite SGNs, triggering brief but intense periods of activity that pass through auditory centers of the brain. Although spontaneous activity requires input from IHCs, there is ongoing debate about whether IHCs are intrinsically active and their firing periodically interrupted by external inhibitory input (IHC-inhibition model), or are intrinsically silent and their firing periodically promoted by an external excitatory stimulus (IHC-excitation model). There is accumulating evidence that inner supporting cells in Kölliker’s organ spontaneously release ATP during this time, which can induce bursts of Ca(2+) spikes in IHCs that recapitulate many features of auditory neuron activity observed in vivo. Nevertheless, the role of supporting cells in this process remains to be established in vivo. A greater understanding of the molecular mechanisms responsible for generating IHC activity in the developing cochlea will help reveal how these events contribute to the maturation of nascent auditory circuits.