The inner ear is a fluid-filled sensory organ that transforms mechanical stimuli into the senses of hearing and balance. These neurosensory functions depend on the strict regulation of the volume of the two major extracellular fluid domains of the inner ear, the perilymph and the endolymph. Water channel proteins, or aquaporins (AQPs), are molecular candidates for the precise regulation of perilymph and endolymph volume. Eight AQP subtypes have been identified in the membranous labyrinth of the inner ear. Similar AQP subtypes are also expressed in the kidney, where they function in whole-body water regulation. In the inner ear, AQP subtypes are ubiquitously expressed in distinct cell types, suggesting that AQPs have an important physiological role in the volume regulation of perilymph and endolymph. Furthermore, disturbed AQP function may have pathophysiological relevance and may turn AQPs into therapeutic targets for the treatment of inner ear diseases. In this review, we present the currently available knowledge regarding the expression and function of AQPs in the inner ear. We give special consideration to AQP subtypes AQP2, AQP4 and AQP5, which have been studied most extensively. The potential functions of AQP2 and AQP5 in the resorption and secretion of endolymph and of AQP4 in the equilibration of cell volume are described. The pathophysiological implications of these AQP subtypes for inner ear diseases, that appear to involve impaired fluid regulation, such as Menière's disease and Sjögren's syndrome, are discussed.
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