Millions of people worldwide suffer from hearing and balance disorders caused by loss of the sensory hair cells that convert sound vibrations and head movements into electrical signals that are conveyed to the brain. In mammals, the great majority of hair cells are produced during embryogenesis. Hair cells that are lost after birth are virtually irreplaceable, leading to permanent disability. Other vertebrates, such as fish and amphibians, produce hair cells throughout life. However, hair cell replacement after damage to the mature inner ear was either not investigated or assumed to be impossible until studies in the late 1980s proved this to be false. Adult birds were shown to regenerate lost hair cells in the auditory sensory epithelium after noise- and ototoxic drug-induced damage. Since then, the field of hair cell regeneration has continued to investigate the capacity of the auditory and vestibular epithelia in vertebrates (fishes, birds, reptiles, and mammals) to regenerate hair cells and to recover function, the molecular mechanisms governing these regenerative capabilities, and the prospect of designing biologically-based treatments for hearing loss and balance disorders. Here, we review the major findings of the field during the past 25 years and speculate how future inner ear repair may one day be achieved.
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