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Discovery of new neurons in the inner ear

Lallemand et al

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet have identified four types of neurons in the peripheral auditory system, three of which are new to science, they report

Previously, most of the ear’s nerve cells were considered to be of two types: type 1 and type 2 neurons, type 1 transmitting most of the auditory information. The new study shows that the type 1 cells comprise three very different cell types, which tallies with earlier research showing variations in the electrical properties and sonic response of type 1 cells.

“We now know that there are three different routes into the central auditory system, instead of just one,” says François Lallemend, research group leader at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, who led the study. “This makes us better placed to understand the part played by the different neurons in hearing. We’ve also mapped out which genes are active in the individual cell types.”

Single-cell RNA sequencing

The team conducted their study on mice using single-cell RNA sequencing. The result is a catalogue of the genes expressed in the nerve cells, which can give scientists a foundation for better understanding the auditory system as well as for devising new therapies and drugs they reports.

“Our study can open the way for the development of genetic tools that can be used for new treatments for different kinds of hearing disorders, such as tinnitus,” says Lallemend. “Our mapping can also give rise to different ways of influencing the function of individual nerve cells in the body.”

The study shows that these three neuron types probably play a part in the decoding of sonic intensity (i.e. volume), a function that is crucial during conversations in a loud environment, which rely on the ability to filter out the background noise. This property is also important in different forms of hearing disorders, such as tinnitus or hyperacusis (oversensitivity to sound).

The next step

“Once we know which neurons cause hyperacusis we’ll be able to start investigating new therapies to protect or repair them,” explains Lallemend. “The next step is to show what effect these individual nerve cells have on the auditory system, which can lead to the development of better auditory aids such as cochlear implants.”

The researchers have also shown through comparative studies on adult mice that these different types of neurons are already present at birth. The study is published in Nature Communications.

The study was financed by grants from the Swedish Research Council, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (Wallenberg Academy Fellow), the Swedish Brain Fund, Karolinska Institutet, the Ragnar Söderberg Foundation and the Silent School Foundation.

Photo of: Saida Hadjab, Haohao Wu, François Lallemend and Charles Petitpré, research group Lallemend, the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.
Photographer: Stefan Zimmerman