Spontaneous Activity of Cochlear Hair Cells Triggered by Fluid Secretion Mechanism in Adjacent Support Cells.

Spontaneous electrical activity of neurons in developing sensory systems promotes their maturation and proper connectivity. In the auditory system, spontaneous activity of cochlear inner hair cells (IHCs) is initiated by the release of ATP from glia-like inner supporting cells (ISCs), facilitating maturation of central pathways before hearing onset. Here, we find that ATP stimulates purinergic autoreceptors in ISCs, triggering Cl(-) efflux and osmotic cell shrinkage by opening TMEM16A Ca(2+)-activated Cl(-) channels. Release of Cl(-) from ISCs also forces K(+) efflux, causing transient depolarization of IHCs near ATP release sites. Genetic deletion of TMEM16A markedly reduces the spontaneous activity of IHCs and spiral ganglion neurons in the developing cochlea and prevents ATP-dependent shrinkage of supporting cells. These results indicate that supporting cells in the developing cochlea have adapted a pathway used for fluid secretion in other organs to induce periodic excitation of hair cells.

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.

ATP-induced morphological changes in supporting cells of the developing cochlea.

The developing cochlea of mammals contains a large group of columnar-shaped cells, which together form a structure known as Kölliker’s organ. Prior to the onset of hearing, these inner supporting cells periodically release adenosine 5′-triphosphate (ATP), which activates purinergic receptors in surrounding supporting cells, inner hair cells and the dendrites of primary auditory neurons. Recent studies indicate that purinergic signaling between inner supporting cells and inner hair cells initiates bursts of action potentials in auditory nerve fibers before the onset of hearing. ATP also induces prominent effects in inner supporting cells, including an increase in membrane conductance, a rise in intracellular Ca(2+), and dramatic changes in cell shape, although the importance of ATP signaling in non-sensory cells of the developing cochlea remains unknown. Here, we review current knowledge pertaining to purinergic signaling in supporting cells of Kölliker’s organ and focus on the mechanisms by which ATP induces changes in their morphology. We show that these changes in cell shape are preceded by increases in cytoplasmic Ca(2+), and provide new evidence indicating that elevation of intracellular Ca(2+) and IP(3) are sufficient to initiate shape changes. In addition, we discuss the possibility that these ATP-mediated morphological changes reflect crenation following the activation of Ca(2+)-activated Cl(-) channels, and speculate about the possible functions of these changes in cell morphology for maturation of the cochlea.

The origin of spontaneous activity in the developing auditory system.

Spontaneous activity in the developing auditory system is required for neuronal survival as well as the refinement and maintenance of tonotopic maps in the brain. However, the mechanisms responsible for initiating auditory nerve firing in the absence of sound have not been determined. Here we show that supporting cells in the developing rat cochlea spontaneously release ATP, which causes nearby inner hair cells to depolarize and release glutamate, triggering discrete bursts of action potentials in primary auditory neurons. This endogenous, ATP-mediated signalling synchronizes the output of neighbouring inner hair cells, which may help refine tonotopic maps in the brain. Spontaneous ATP-dependent signalling rapidly subsides after the onset of hearing, thereby preventing this experience-independent activity from interfering with accurate encoding of sound. These data indicate that supporting cells in the organ of Corti initiate electrical activity in auditory nerves before hearing, pointing to an essential role for peripheral, non-sensory cells in the development of central auditory pathways.