During development, excess synapses form between the central and peripheral nervous systems that are then eliminated to achieve correct connectivity. In the peripheral auditory system, the developing type I spiral ganglion afferent fibres undergo a dramatic re-organisation, initially forming connections with both sensory inner hair cells (IHCs) and outer hair cells (OHCs). The OHC connections are then selectively eliminated, leaving sparse innervation by type II afferent fibres, whilst the type I afferent synapses with IHCs are consolidated.
We examined the molecular makeup of the synaptic contacts formed onto the IHCs and OHCs during this period of afferent fibre remodelling. We observed that presynaptic ribbons initially form at all the afferent neurite contacts, i.e. not only at the expected developing IHC-type I fibre synapses but also at OHCs where type I fibres temporarily contact. Moreover, the transient contacts forming onto OHCs possess a broad set of pre- and postsynaptic proteins, suggesting that functional synaptic connections are formed prior to the removal of type I fibre innervation. AMPA-type glutamate receptor subunits were transiently observed at the base of the OHCs, with their downregulation occurring in parallel with the withdrawal of type I fibres, dispersal of presynaptic ribbons, and downregulation of the anchoring proteins Bassoon and Shank. Conversely, at developing type I afferent IHC synapses, the presence of pre- and postsynaptic scaffold proteins was maintained, with differential plasticity in AMPA receptor subunits observed and AMPA receptor subunit composition changing around hearing onset.
Overall our data show a differential balance in the patterns of synaptic proteins at developing afferent IHC versus OHC synapses that likely reflect their stable versus transient fates.