Previous studies have shown that exposure of cochlear cultures to the ototoxic aminoglycoside antibiotic neomycin leads to the rapid formation of numerous membrane filled protrusions on the apical surface of the hair cells but not on the surrounding supporting cells, and that hair cells in basal-coil cultures are more sensitive to these effects of neomycin than those in the distal end of apical-coil cultures. Freeze-fracture has been used to examine and compare the apical surfaces of hair cells and supporting cells in basal and apical-coil cultures in order to look for features that may explain the differential sensitivity of the various cell types to neomycin, and to characterize the membrane type that forms in response to neomycin and compare it with the normal apical membrane of the hair cell. The apical surface of the highly responsive basal-coil outer hair cells differs significantly from the apical surfaces of apical-coil outer hair cells and supporting cells in both regions of the cochlea in both surface area and the number and density of endocytotic vesicles associated with this surface. Basal-coil hair cells have an average of 120 +/- 39 vesicles per cell surface and a density of 3.5 +/- 0.89 vesicles per microns 2, whereas apical-coil hair cells have 14.8 +/- 15.8 vesicles/cell surface and density of 0.73 +/- 0.72 vesicles per microns 2. There are no significant differences in intramembrane particle (IMP) density on the apical surfaces of all the cell types examined, and qualitative observations of filipin-treated specimens indicate that cholesterol densities are also similar. The membrane that accumulates in response to neomycin treatment at the apical pole of the hair cell is IMP free, does not respond to filipin, and fractures in a manner that is indicative of a high content of unsaturated phospholipid in a fluid phase, and is therefore different in several respects from the normal apical surface of the hair cell. The results of this study suggest that apical surface associated endocytotic vesicle numbers may determine the differential sensitivity of apical and basal-coil hair cells to neomycin, and that neomycin may interfere with some aspect of phospholipid metabolism or membrane turnover in sensory hair cells.