The stria vascularis of the mammalian cochlea is composed primarily of three types of cells. Marginal cells line the lumen of the cochlear duct and are of epithelial origin. Basal cells also form a continuous layer and they may be mesodermal or derived from the neural crest. Intermediate cells are melanocyte-like cells, presumably derived from the neural crest, and are scattered between the marginal and basal cell layers. The marginal cells form extensive interdigitations with the basal and intermediate cells in the normal adult stria. The stria also contains a rich supply of blood vessels. We investigated the role of melanocytes in the stria vascularis by studying its development in a mouse mutant, viable dominant spotting, which is known to have a primary neural crest defect leading to an absence of recognisable melanocytes in the skin. Melanocytes were not found in the stria of most of the mutants examined, and from about 6 days of age onwards a reduced amount of interdigitation amongst the cells of the stria was observed. These ultrastructural anomalies were associated with strial dysfunction. In the normal adult mammal, the stria produces an endocochlear potential (EP), a resting dc potential in the endolymph in the cochlear duct, which in mice is normally about +100 mV. In our control mice, EP rose to adult levels between 6 and 16 days after birth. In most of the mutants we studied, EP was close to zero at all ages from 6 to 20 days. Melanocyte-like cells appear to be vital for normal stria vascularis development and function. They may be necessary to facilitate the normal process of interdigitation between marginal and basal cell processes at a particular stage during development, and the lack of adequate interdigitation in the mutants may be the cause of their strial dysfunction. Alternatively, melanocytes may have some direct, essential role in the production of an EP by the stria. Melanocytes may be important both for normal strial development and for the production of the EP. We believe this is the clearest demonstration yet of a role for migratory melanocytes other than their role in pigmentation.

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