Ultrastructural differences among afferent synapses on cochlear hair cells: correlations with spontaneous discharge rate

J Comp Neurol. 1996 Jul 22;371(2):208-21. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1096-9861(19960722)371:2<208::AID-CNE2>3.0.CO;2-6.


The major class of cochlear afferent fibers, the type-I or radial-fiber (RF) population, has been subdivided into three functional groups according to spontaneous discharge rate (SR): those with low SR have the highest acoustic thresholds, high SR fibers have the lowest thresholds and medium SR fibers are of intermediate sensitivity (Liberman [1978] J. Acoust. Soc. Amer. 63:442-455). Existing evidence from intracellular labeling studies at the light microscopic level (Liberman [1982a] Science 216:1239-1241) suggests that a single cochlear inner hair cell makes synaptic contact with representatives of all three functional groups; however, low and medium SR fibers are spatially segregated from high SR fibers around the hair cell circumference, and low and medium SR fibers are smaller in caliber than those with high SR. The present study extends to the ultrastructural level the structure-function correlations available via intracellular labeling. Analysis is based on serial section reconstruction of the synaptic contacts between 11 radial fibers of known SR and their target hair cells. Results suggest systematic differences in synaptic ultrastructure among fibers of the three SR groups: with decreasing SR, the size and complexity of the synaptic body (a presynaptic specialization characteristic of the peripheral afferent synapses in all hair cell systems and some other peripheral receptors) tend to increase, as does the associated number of synaptic vesicles. The possible functional significance of these trends is discussed in the context of other known structural and functional differences among the three SR groups.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Afferent Pathways / ultrastructure
  • Animals
  • Cats / anatomy & histology*
  • Cats / physiology
  • Hair Cells, Auditory / ultrastructure*
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Synapses / ultrastructure*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*