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Keywords:

  • hair cells;
  • sensory neurons;
  • inner ear;
  • neurotrophins;
  • guidance cues;
  • cell death

Abstract

Inner ear hair cells have been suggested as attractors for growing afferent fibers, possibly through the release of the neurotrophin brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Atoh1 null mice never fully differentiate hair cells and supporting cells and, therefore, may show aberrations in the growth and/or retention of their innervation. We investigated the distribution of cells positive for Atoh1- or Bdnf-mediated β-galactosidase expression in Atoh1 null and Atoh1 heterozygotic mice and correlated the distribution of these cells with their innervation. Embryonic day (E) 18.5 Atoh1 null and heterozygotic littermates show Atoh1- and BDNF-β-galactosidase–positive cells in comparable distributions in the canal cristae and the cochlea apex. Atoh1-β-galactosidase–positive but only occasional Bdnf-β-galactosidase–positive cells are found in the utricle, saccule, and cochlea base of Atoh1 null mutant mice. Absence of Bdnf-β-galactosidase expression in the utricle and saccule of Atoh1 null mice is first noted at E12.5, a time when Atoh1-β-galactosidase expression is also first detected in these epithelia. These data suggest that expression of Bdnf is dependent on ATOH1 protein in some but does not require ATOH1 protein in other inner ear cells. Overall, the undifferentiated Atoh1- and Bdnf-β-galactosidase–positive cells show a distribution reminiscent of that in the six sensory epithelia in control mice, suggesting that ear patterning processes can form discrete patches of Atoh1 and Bdnf expression in the absence of ATOH1 protein. The almost normal growth of afferent and efferent fibers in younger embryos suggests that neither fully differentiated hair cells nor BDNF are necessary for the initial targeted growth of fibers. E18.5 Atoh1 null mice have many afferent fibers to the apex of the cochlea, the anterior and the posterior crista, all areas with numerous Bdnf-β-galactosidase–positive cells. Few fibers remain to the saccule, utricle, and the base of the cochlea, all areas with few or no Bdnf-β-galactosidase–positive cells. Thus, retention of fibers is possible with BDNF, even in the absence of differentiated hair cells. Developmental Dynamics 233:570–583, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.