Aquaporins are membrane water channel proteins that have also been identified in the cochlea. Auditory function critically depends on the homeostasis of the cochlear fluids perilymph and endolymph. In particular, the ion and water regulation of the endolymph is essential for sensory transduction. Within the cochlear duct the lateral wall epithelium has been proposed to secrete endolymph by an aquaporin-mediated flow of water across its epithelial tight junction barrier. This study identifies interspecies differences in the cellular distribution of aquaporin 5 (AQP5) in the cochlear lateral wall of mice, rats, gerbils and guinea pigs. In addition the cellular expression pattern of AQP5 is described in the human cochlea. Developmental changes in rats demonstrate longitudinal and radial gradients along the cochlear duct. During early postnatal development a pancochlear expression is detected. However a regression to the apical quadrant and limitation to outer sulcus cells (OSCs) is observed in the adult. This developmental loss of AQP5 expression in the basal cochlear segments coincides with a morphological loss of contact between OSCs and the endolymph. At the subcellular level, AQP5 exhibits polarized expression in the apical plasma membrane of the OSCs. Complementary, the basolateral membrane in the root processes of the OSCs exhibits AQP4 expression. This differential localization of AQP5 and AQP4 in the apical and basolateral membranes of the same epithelial cell type suggests a direct aquaporin-mediated transcellular water shunt between the perilymph and endolymph in the OSCs of the cochlear lateral wall. In the human cochlea these findings may have pathophysiological implications attributed to a dysfunctional water regulation by AQP5 such as endolymphatic hydrops (i.e. in Meniere's disease) or sensorineural hearing loss (i.e. in Sjögren's syndrome).
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