The innervation of the inner ear critically depends on the two neurotrophins Ntf3 and Bdnf. In contrast to this molecularly well-established dependency, evidence regarding the need of innervation for long-term maintenance of inner ear hair cells is inconclusive, due to experimental variability. Mutant mice that lack both neurotrophins could shed light on the long-term consequences of innervation loss on hair cells without introducing experimental variability, but do not survive after birth. Mutant mice with conditional deletion of both neurotrophins lose almost all innervation by postnatal day 10 and show an initially normal development of hair cells by this stage. No innervation remains after 3 weeks and complete loss of all innervation results in near complete loss of outer and many inner hair cells of the organ of Corti within 4 months. Mutants that retain one allele of either neurotrophin have only partial loss of innervation of the organ of Corti and show a longer viability of cochlear hair cells with more profound loss of inner hair cells. By 10 months, hair cells disappear with a base to apex progression, proportional to the residual density of innervation and similar to carboplatin ototoxicity. Similar to reports of hair cell loss after aminoglycoside treatment, blobbing of stereocilia of apparently dying hair cells protrude into the cochlear duct. Denervation of vestibular sensory epithelia for several months also resulted in variable results, ranging from unusual hair cells resembling the aberrations found in the organ of Corti, to near normal hair cells in the canal cristae. Fusion and/or resorption of stereocilia and loss of hair cells follows a pattern reminiscent of Myo6 and Cdc42 null mice. Our data support a role of innervation for long-term maintenance but with a remarkable local variation that needs to be taken into account when attempting regeneration of the organ of Corti.
Keywords: conditional deletion; degeneration; hair cells; inner ear; innervation; neurotrophins.