• neurotrophins;
  • spiral ganglion neurons;
  • phenotypic changes;
  • neurotrophic factors;
  • signal transduction;
  • neurotrophin receptors;
  • expression patterns;
  • hearing;
  • cochlea


The spiral ganglion neurons (SGNs) are the afferent neurons of the cochlea, connecting the auditory sensory cells—hair cells—to the brainstem cochlear nuclei. The neurotrophins neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) are expressed in the cochlea and both support SGN survival during development. These neurotrophins remain expressed in the postnatal cochlea and continue to play additional roles for SGNs, contributing to maintenance of hair cell-SGN synapses and regulating expression of ion channels, presynaptic and postsynaptic proteins, and SGN membrane electrical properties in a physiologically important spatial pattern. Remarkably, NT-3 and BDNF have different, even opposing, effects on SGN physiology despite the close similarity of their receptors TrkB and TrkC. Recent studies have also raised the possibility that precursor proneurotrophin forms of the neurotrophins play a role in responses to trauma in the cochlea, signaling through the proneurotrophin receptor p75NTR. Here, we review expression and function of neurotrophins and their p75NTR and Trk-family receptors in the cochlea. We focus, in particular, on neurotrophin functions other than support of SGN survival, including regulation of SGN neurite growth, synaptic and membrane physiology. These functions, unlike survival, are ones for which BDNF and NT-3 substantially differ in their effects. Signal transduction mechanisms of p75NTR and of Trk-family receptors are discussed, indicating how these lead to different responses, and we speculate on how BDNF and NT-3 can cause different phenotypic changes in SGNs. Because these complex signaling interactions remain incompletely understood, use of neurotrophins as therapeutic agents in the cochlea should be approached with caution. Anat Rec, 2012. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.