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.
Neurons in the developing auditory system fire bursts of action potentials before the onset of hearing. This spontaneousactivity promotes the survival and maturation of auditory neurons and the refinement of synaptic connections in auditory nuclei; however, the mechanisms responsible for initiating this activity remain uncertain. Previous studies indicate that inner supporting cells (ISCs) in the developing cochlea periodically release ATP, which depolarizes inner hair cells (IHCs), leading to bursts of action potentials in postsynaptic spiral ganglion neurons (SGNs). To determine when purinergic signaling appears in the developing cochlea and whether it is responsible for initiating auditory neuron activity throughout the prehearing period, we examined spontaneousactivity from ISCs, IHCs, and SGNs in cochleae acutely isolated from rats during the first three postnatal weeks. We found that ATP was released from ISCs within the cochlea from birth until the onset of hearing, which led to periodic inward currents, Ca(2+) transients, and morphological changes in these supporting cells. This spontaneous release of ATP also depolarized IHCs and triggered bursts of action potentials in SGNs for most of the postnatal prehearing period, beginning a few days after birth as IHCs became responsive to ATP, until the onset of hearing when ATP was no longer released from ISCs. When IHCs were not subject to purinergic excitation, SGNs exhibited little or no activity. These results suggest that supporting cells in the cochlea provide the primary excitatory stimulus responsible for initiating bursts of action potentials in auditory nerve fibers before the onset of hearing.