Reciprocal synapses between outer hair cells and their afferent terminals: evidence for a local neural network in the mammalian cochlea

J Assoc Res Otolaryngol. 2008 Dec;9(4):477-89. doi: 10.1007/s10162-008-0135-x. Epub 2008 Aug 8.


Cochlear outer hair cells (OHCs) serve both as sensory receptors and biological motors. Their sensory function is poorly understood because their afferent innervation, the type-II spiral ganglion cell, has small unmyelinated axons and constitutes only 5% of the cochlear nerve. Reciprocal synapses between OHCs and their type-II terminals, consisting of paired afferent and efferent specialization, have been described in the primate cochlea. Here, we use serial and semi-serial-section transmission electron microscopy to quantify the nature and number of synaptic interactions in the OHC area of adult cats. Reciprocal synapses were found in all OHC rows and all cochlear frequency regions. They were more common among third-row OHCs and in the apical half of the cochlea, where 86% of synapses were reciprocal. The relative frequency of reciprocal synapses was unchanged following surgical transection of the olivocochlear bundle in one cat, confirming that reciprocal synapses were not formed by efferent fibers. In the normal ear, axo-dendritic synapses between olivocochlear terminals and type-II terminals and/or dendrites were as common as synapses between olivocochlear terminals and OHCs, especially in the first row, where, on average, almost 30 such synapses were seen in the region under a single OHC. The results suggest that a complex local neuronal circuitry in the OHC area, formed by the dendrites of type-II neurons and modulated by the olivocochlear system, may be a fundamental property of the mammalian cochlea, rather than a curiosity of the primate ear. This network may mediate local feedback control of, and bidirectional communication among, OHCs throughout the cochlear spiral.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / cytology
  • Afferent Pathways / physiology
  • Animals
  • Auditory Pathways / cytology*
  • Auditory Pathways / physiology
  • Cats
  • Cochlear Nerve / cytology*
  • Cochlear Nerve / physiology
  • Efferent Pathways / cytology
  • Efferent Pathways / physiology
  • Hair Cells, Auditory, Outer / cytology*
  • Hair Cells, Auditory, Outer / physiology
  • Mammals
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Nerve Fibers / physiology
  • Nerve Fibers / ultrastructure
  • Spiral Ganglion / cytology*
  • Spiral Ganglion / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology
  • Synapses / ultrastructure*