Volume homeostasis of the cochlear endolymph depends on radial and longitudinal endolymph movements (LEMs). LEMs measured in vivo have been exclusively recognized under physiologically challenging conditions, such as experimentally induced alterations of perilymph osmolarity or endolymph volume. The regulatory mechanisms that adjust LEMs to the physiological requirements of endolymph volume homeostasis remain unknown. Here, we describe the formation of an aquaporin (AQP)-based "water shunt" during the postnatal development of the mouse cochlea and its regulation by different triggers. The final complementary expression pattern of AQP5 (apical membrane) and AQP4 (basolateral membrane) in outer sulcus cells (OSCs) of the cochlear apex is acquired at the onset of hearing function (postnatal day (p)8-p12). In vitro, hyperosmolar perfusion of the perilymphatic fluid spaces or the administration of the muscarinic agonist pilocarpine in cochlear explants (p14) induced the translocation of AQP5 channel proteins into the apical membranes of OSCs. AQP5 membrane translocation was blocked by the muscarinic antagonist atropine. The muscarinic M3 acetylcholine (ACh) receptor (M3R) was identified in murine OSCs via mRNA expression, immunolabeling, and in vitro binding studies using an M3R-specific fluorescent ligand. Finally, the water shunt elements AQP4, AQP5, and M3R were also demonstrated in OSCs of the human cochlea. The regulation of the AQP4/AQP5 water shunt in OSCs of the cochlear apex provides a molecular basis for regulated endolymphatic volume homeostasis. Moreover, its dysregulation or disruption may have pathophysiologic implications for clinical conditions related to endolymphatic hydrops, such as Ménière's disease.
Keywords: Aquaporin; Cochlea; Muscarinic; Ménière’s disease; Pilocarpine; Water permeability.