One approach to the treatment of neural loss is the transplantation of exogenous progenitor cells. We use a model system developed for neural replacement in the inner ear to investigate requirements for rebuilding a neural circuit: in the current work we study whether transplanted neurons derived from stem cells can restore function to an ear after the loss of primary afferent innervation. Our previous work has shown that neurons from transplanted stem cells can reinnervate hair cells of the organ of Corti after chemical de- afferentation, both in an in vitro explant and in an in vivo gerbil model, suggesting that this neural circuit can be reconstituted in the adult nervous system if appropriate progenitor cells are introduced. In this proposal we use this system to study what characteristics of the donor cells allow them to form functional synapses with hair cells, and we ask whether the new synapses lead to recovery of hearing in animals with primary neuronal degeneration. Understanding the mechanisms underlying re-formation of neural connections to hair cells in the adult ear is important to any therapeutic approach to sensorineural hearing loss.
The Specific Aims comprise 3 inter-related experiments to probe key variables likely to influence the success of hair cell reinnervation by transplanted neural progenitor cells.
In Aim 1 the effect of the stage of differentiation of the stem cells on their capacity to reinnervate hair cells is assessed in a denervated in vitro organ of Corti. Assessments are based on immunohistochemistry: the morphology and number of synapses formed with inner and outer hair cells;and electrophysiology: firing of action potentials and excitatory postsynaptic currents by the neurons after stimulation of hair cells, and inhibition of this synaptic function by pharmacological blockers that inhibit functional activity of native cochlear afferent glutamatergic synapses.
In Aim 2 we use cochlear explants de-afferented by a toxin to study the effect of modulating expression of molecules involved in synaptogenesis. Based on our evidence for their expression in the organ of Corti and their ability to increase synaptogenesis in other systems of neural regeneration, we have selected a group of molecules for study. Semaphorin 3a, repulsive guidance molecule, and semaphorin 4b, a negative regulator of axon guidance and synaptogenesis are inhibited, and neurotrophin-3 and cadherin 11, positive regulators of synaptogenesis are overexpressed. We also inhibit the expression of neuropilin1 and neogenin1, axon guidance receptors expressed in the growth cone of regenerating neurons.
In Aim 3 we build on the in vitro results for in vivo transplantation into a de-afferented gerbil ear, in which the sensory cells are intact but spiral ganglion cells are destroyed. We test whether the reinnervation of hair cells that we have observed in this model results in improvements in functional measures of hearing, and we use a mouse model to study the effect of axonal guidance molecules on reinnervation and functional improvement.

Public Health Relevance

The work described in this grant will attempt to better understand the genes involved in pathfinding and synapse formation between stem cell-derived neurons and their targets. This information is useful in any treatment in which replacement of neurons could be beneficial. Because of the clear correlation between loss of cochlear cells and sensorineural hearing loss, improvements in our ability to regenerate these neurons and their afferent synapse with hair cells will lead directly to new treatments for loss of hearing.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD)
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Auditory System Study Section (AUD)
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Freeman, Nancy
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Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary
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