Gentamicin is well known to promote hair cell death in inner ear, but it also appears to activate opposing pathways that promote hair cell survival. In combination with others, our previous work has indicated that a K-Ras/Rac/JNK pathway is important for hair cell death and an H-Ras/Raf/MEK/Erk pathway is involved in promoting hair cell survival (Battaglia et al., Neuroscience 122(4):1025-1035, 2003). However, these data also suggested that a Ras-independent survival pathway for activation of MEK might be stimulated by gentamicin. To investigate alternatives to the Ras/Raf/MEK/Erk pathway in promoting hair cell survival, cochlear explants were exposed to gentamicin combined with several inhibitors of alternative pathways (LY294002, calphostin C, SH-6, U73122). When exposed to gentamicin with the PI3K inhibitor LY294002 (10, 50 microM), the protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitor calphostin C (50, 100 nM) or the PKB/Akt inhibitor SH-6 (5, 10 microM), hair cell damage was significantly increased compared to gentamicin alone. By Western blotting, strong PKB/Akt activation was observed in the organ of Corti following exposure to 50 microM gentamicin for 6 h. In addition, PKC activation by 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate protected outer hair cells from gentamicin induced cell death. In contrast, the phospholipase C-gamma (PLCgamma) inhibitor U73122 (2, 5 microM) did not affect hair cell damage when combined with gentamicin. Also, phosphorylation of PLCgamma was not increased in the organ of Corti following gentamicin treatment, as evaluated by Western blot. The results indicate that PI3K promotes hair cell survival via its downstream targets, PKC and PKB/Akt. This suggests that both Ras-dependent and Ras-independent survival pathways are involved during gentamicin exposure. In contrast, PLCgamma activation of PKC does not appear to play a role.