Int. J. Dev. Biol. 51: 655 - 661 (2007)
doi: 10.1387/ijdb.072372rm
© UPV/EHU Press

Stem cells for the replacement of inner ear neurons and hair cells

Rodrigo Martinez-Monedero1,2 and Albert S.B. Edge*,1,2,3

1Department of Otology and Laryngology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 2Tillotson Unit for Cell Biology, Eaton-Peabody Laboratory, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Boston, MA and 3Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, Division of Health Science and Technology, Harvard & MIT, Cambridge, MA, USA

ABSTRACT Stem cells in the nervous system have some capacity to restore damaged tissue. Proliferation of stem cells endows them with self-renewal ability and accounts for in vitro formation of neurospheres, clonally derived colonies of floating cells. However, damage to the nervous system is not readily repaired, suggesting that the stem cells do not provide an easily recruited source of cells for regeneration. The vestibular and auditory organs, despite their limited ability to replace damaged cells, appear to contain cells with stem cell properties. These inner ear stem cells, identified by neurosphere formation and by their expression of markers of inner ear progenitors, can differentiate to hair cells and neurons. Differentiated cells obtained from inner ear stem cells expressed sensory neuron markers and, after co-culture with the organ of Corti, grew processes that extended to hair cells. The neurons expressed synaptic vesicle markers at points of contact with hair cells. Exogenous stem cells have also been used for hair cell and neuron replacement. Embryonic stem cells are one potential source of both hair cells and sensory neurons. Neural progenitors made from embryonic stem cells, transplanted into the inner ear of gerbils that had been de-afferented by treatment with a toxin, differentiated into cells that expressed neuronal markers and grew processes both peripherally into the organ of Corti and centrally. The regrowth of these neurons suggests that it may be possible to replace auditory neurons that have degenerated with neurons that restore auditory function by regenerating connections to hair cells.


cell therapy, hearing, guidance, regeneration

*Corresponding author e-mail: