Endocytosis in cochlear hair cells was investigated by staining with the vital fluorescent dye FM 1-43, that partitions reversibly into membranes and is trapped in vesicles during endocytosis. The temporal development and spatial distribution of FM 1-43 induced fluorescence was investigated using confocal laser-scanning microscopy. FM 1-43 rapidly and intensely stained cochlear hair cells, leaving the supporting cells unstained. For short application (0.2-30 s), only the infracuticular region of outer hair cells (OHCs) was labeled, whereas for long application (30-60 s), the OHCs were also labeled in the infranuclear zone and along a central strand extending from the infracuticular zone down to the nucleus, as well as along the entire cell membrane. Except for the cell membrane, the infracuticular zone, directly below the cuticular plate, showed the most rapid and intense staining, and in most cases staining was spherically shaped with a diameter of 3-7 microm. Localization and size of this infracuticular staining coincided with Hensen's body, a specialized variant of the endoplasmic reticulum. In contrast to the OHCs, apical fluorescence of inner hair cells presented a homogeneous distribution. When OHCs were incubated in FM 1-43 for longer than 1 min, many points of contact between the central strand, the infracuticular zone and the lateral cell membrane were observed. Since Hensen's bodies are a specialty of OHCs and the fluorescent staining pattern of these cells was unique, it is proposed that Hensen's body is involved in the turnover of OHC-specific proteins, such as those involved in the molecular machinery of the motor action of the plasma membrane.