Mutations in the gene encoding the gap junction protein connexin26 (Cx26) are responsible for the autosomal recessive isolated deafness, DFNB1, which accounts for half of the cases of prelingual profound hereditary deafness in Caucasian populations. To date, in vivo approaches to decipher the role of Cx26 in the inner ear have been hampered by the embryonic lethality of the Cx26 knockout mice. To overcome this difficulty, we performed targeted ablation of Cx26 specifically in one of the two cellular networks that it underlies in the inner ear, namely, the epithelial network. We show that homozygous mutant mice, Cx26(OtogCre), have hearing impairment, but no vestibular dysfunction. The inner ear developed normally. However, on postnatal day 14 (P14), i.e., soon after the onset of hearing, cell death appeared and eventually extended to the cochlear epithelial network and sensory hair cells. Cell death initially affected only the supporting cells of the genuine sensory cell (inner hair cell, IHC), thus suggesting that it could be triggered by the IHC response to sound stimulation. Altogether, our results demonstrate that the Cx26-containing epithelial gap junction network is essential for cochlear function and cell survival. We conclude that prevention of cell death in the sensory epithelium is essential for any attempt to restore the auditory function in DFNB1 patients.
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