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Neuroscience. 2012 Dec 27;227:232-46. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2012.09.051. Epub 2012 Sep 29.

Intercellular K⁺ accumulation depolarizes Type I vestibular hair cells and their associated afferent nerve calyx.

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Department of Public Health and Neuroscience, University of Pavia, Via Forlanini 6, 27100 Pavia, Italy.


Mammalian vestibular organs contain two types of sensory receptors, named Type I and Type II hair cells. While Type II hair cells are contacted by several small afferent nerve terminals, the basolateral surface of Type I hair cells is almost entirely enveloped by a single large afferent nerve terminal, called calyx. Moreover Type I, but not Type II hair cells, express a low-voltage-activated outward K(+) current, I(K,L), which is responsible for their much lower input resistance (Rm) at rest as compared to Type II hair cells. The functional meaning of I(K,L) and associated calyx is still enigmatic. By combining the patch-clamp whole-cell technique with the mouse whole crista preparation, we have recorded the current- and voltage responses of in situ hair cells. Outward K(+) current activation resulted in K(+) accumulation around Type I hair cells, since it induced a rightward shift of the K(+) reversal potential the magnitude of which depended on the amplitude and duration of K(+) current flow. Since this phenomenon was never observed for Type II hair cells, we ascribed it to the presence of a residual calyx limiting K(+) efflux from the synaptic cleft. Intercellular K(+) accumulation added a slow (τ>100ms) depolarizing component to the cell voltage response. In a few cases we were able to record from the calyx and found evidence for intercellular K(+) accumulation as well. The resulting depolarization could trigger a discharge of action potentials in the afferent nerve fiber. Present results support a model where pre- and postsynaptic depolarization produced by intercellular K(+) accumulation cooperates with neurotransmitter exocytosis in sustaining afferent transmission arising from Type I hair cells. While vesicular transmission together with the low Rm of Type I hair cells appears best suited for signaling fast head movements, depolarization produced by intercellular K(+) accumulation could enhance signal transmission during slow head movements.

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