The spiral ganglion cell (SGC) is the target of electrical stimulation in cochlear implants. This study is designed to test the hypothesis that chronic electrical stimulation tends to preserve SGCs in implanted hearing-impaired ears. A total of 26 pairs of temporal bones were studied from 26 individuals who in life suffered bilateral profound hearing impairment that was symmetric (in degree of impairment and etiology) across ears and then underwent unilateral cochlear implantation. The subjects were divided in two groups by stimulus configuration: bipolar (n = 16) or monopolar (n = 10). The temporal bones were prepared for histological review by standard methods and two measures of SGC status were made by cochlear segment: count and maximal cross-sectional area. Within-subject comparison of the measures between the implanted-stimulated and the unimplanted ears showed: (1) for both stimulus configurations, the mean (across subjects and segments) of the count difference (implanted ear - unimplanted ear) was significantly less than zero; (2) the mean (across subject) count difference for cochlear segments I, II and III (segments with electrode contacts in the implanted ear) was significantly less negative than the mean difference for cochlear segment IV (no electrode in implanted ear) for bipolar but not for monopolar stimulation; (3) neither implantation-stimulation nor stimulus configuration significantly influenced the measures of maximum cross-sectional cell area. The SGC count results are consistent with the hypothesis that implantation results in a propensity across the whole cochlea for SGCs to degenerate and with chronic bipolar stimulation ameliorating this propensity in those cochlear segments with electrodes present.
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