Many studies that aim to investigate the underlying mechanisms of hearing loss or balance disorders focus on the hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons of the inner ear. Fewer studies have examined the supporting cells that contact both of these cell types in the cochlea and vestibular end organs. While the roles of supporting cells are still being elucidated, emerging evidence indicates that they serve many functions vital to maintaining healthy populations of hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons. Here we review recent studies that highlight the critical roles supporting cells play in the development, function, survival, death, phagocytosis, and regeneration of other cell types within the inner ear. Many of these roles have also been described for glial cells in other parts of the nervous system, and lessons from these other systems continue to inform our understanding of supporting cell functions.
This article is part of a Special Issue entitled “Annual Reviews 2013”.Highlights
▸ Supporting cells are vital to the development and function of hair cells and neurons. ▸ Supporting cells mediate hair cell survival, death, and regeneration. ▸ Supporting cells eliminate damaged or dying hair cells from the sensory epithelium. ▸ Many functions of supporting cells are similar to those reported for glial cells.