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Keywords:

  • development;
  • eighth nerve;
  • cochlear spiral ganglion;
  • primary afferents;
  • tonotopic organization;
  • topographic maps

Abstract

Studies of visual system development have suggested that competition driven by activity is essential for refinement of initial topographically diffuse neuronal projections into their precise adult patterns. This has led to the assertion that this process may shape development of topographic connections throughout the nervous system. Because the cat auditory system is very immature at birth, with auditory nerve neurons initially exhibiting very low or no spontaneous activity, we hypothesized that the auditory nerve fibers might initially form topographically broad projections within the cochlear nuclei (CN), which later would become topographically precise at the time when adult-like frequency selectivity develops. In this study, we made restricted injections of Neurobiotin, which labeled small sectors (300–500 μm) of the cochlear spiral ganglion, to study the projections of auditory nerve fibers representing a narrow band of frequencies. Results showed that projections from the basal cochlea to the CN are tonotopically organized in neonates, many days before the onset of functional hearing and even prior to the development of spontaneous activity in the auditory nerve. However, results also demonstrated that significant refinement of the topographic specificity of the primary afferent axons of the auditory nerve occurs in late gestation or early postnatal development. Projections to all three subdivisions of the CN exhibit clear tonotopic organization at or before birth, but the topographic restriction of fibers into frequency band laminae is significantly less precise in perinatal kittens than in adult cats. Two injections spaced ≥2 mm apart in the cochlea resulted in labeled bands of projecting axons in the anteroventral CN that were 53% broader than would be expected if they were proportional to those in adults, and the two projections were incompletely segregated in the youngest animals studied. Posteroventral CN (PVCN) projections (normalized for CN size) were 36% broader in neonates than in adults, and projections from double injections in the youngest subjects were nearly fused in the PVCN. Projections to the dorsal division of the CN were 32% broader in neonates than in adults when normalized, but the dorsal CN projections were always discrete, even at the earliest ages studied. J. Comp. Neurol. 448:6–27, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.