Background: Following the loss of hair cells from the mammalian cochlea, the sensory epithelium repairs to close the lesions but no new hair cells arise and hearing impairment ensues. For any cell replacement strategy to be successful, the cellular environment of the injured tissue has to be able to nurture new hair cells. This study defines characteristics of the auditory sensory epithelium after hair cell loss.
Methodology/principal findings: Studies were conducted in C57BL/6 and CBA/Ca mice. Treatment with an aminoglycoside-diuretic combination produced loss of all outer hair cells within 48 hours in both strains. The subsequent progressive tissue re-organisation was examined using immunohistochemistry and electron microscopy. There was no evidence of significant de-differentiation of the specialised columnar supporting cells. Kir4.1 was down regulated but KCC4, GLAST, microtubule bundles, connexin expression patterns and pathways of intercellular communication were retained. The columnar supporting cells became covered with non-specialised cells migrating from the outermost region of the organ of Corti. Eventually non-specialised, flat cells replaced the columnar epithelium. Flat epithelium developed in distributed patches interrupting regions of columnar epithelium formed of differentiated supporting cells. Formation of the flat epithelium was initiated within a few weeks post-treatment in C57BL/6 mice but not for several months in CBA/Ca's, suggesting genetic background influences the rate of re-organisation.
Conclusions/significance: The lack of dedifferentiation amongst supporting cells and their replacement by cells from the outer side of the organ of Corti are factors that may need to be considered in any attempt to promote endogenous hair cell regeneration. The variability of the cellular environment along an individual cochlea arising from patch-like generation of flat epithelium, and the possible variability between individuals resulting from genetic influences on the rate at which remodelling occurs may pose challenges to devising the appropriate regenerative therapy for a deaf patient.