During nervous system development, critical periods are usually defined as early periods during which manipulations dramatically change neuronal structure or function, whereas the same manipulations in mature animals have little or no effect on the same property. Neurons in the ventral cochlear nucleus (CN) are dependent on excitatory afferent input for survival during a critical period of development. Cochlear removal in young mammals and birds results in rapid death of target neurons in the CN. Cochlear removal in older animals results in little or no neuron death. However, the extent to which hair-cell-specific afferent activity prevents neuronal death in the neonatal brain is unknown. We further explore this phenomenon using a new mouse model that allows temporal control of cochlear hair cell deletion. Hair cells express the human diphtheria toxin (DT) receptor behind the Pou4f3 promoter. Injections of D Tresulted in nearly complete loss of organ of Corti hair cells within 1 week of injection regardless of the age of injection. Injection of DT did not influence surrounding supporting cells directly in the sensory epithelium or spiral ganglion neurons (SGNs). Loss of hair cells in neonates resulted in rapid and profound neuronal loss in the ventral CN, but not when hair cells were eliminated at a more mature age. In addition, normal survival of SGNs was dependent on hair cell integrity early in development and less so in mature animals. This defines a previously undocumented critical period for SGN survival.
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