From our permanent collection of plastic-embedded flat preparations of chinchilla cochleae, 22 controls and 199 ears from noise-exposed animals were used to determine when, postexposure, hair cell (HC) and supporting cell (SC) degeneration were completed. The exposed ears were divided into four groups based on exposure parameters: 0.5- or 4-kHz octave band of noise at moderate (M) or high (H) intensities. Postexposure survival ranged from <1 h to 2.5 y. Ears fixed ≤ 0–12 h postexposure were called ‘acute’. For ‘chronic’ ears, postexposure survival was ≥7 d for groups 0.5M and 4M, ≥ 1 mo for the 4H group and ≥7 mo for the 0.5H group. The time course of inner-ear degeneration after noise exposure was determined from data in the 0.5H and 4H groups because these groups contained ears with intermediate survival times. Outer hair cells (OHCs) began dying during the exposure. OHC loss slowed down beyond 1 mo but was still present. Conversely, much inner hair cell loss was delayed until 1–3 wk postexposure. Outer pillar and inner pillar losses were present at a low level in acute ears but increased exponentially thereafter. These results are the first to demonstrate quantitatively that hair cells (HCs) and supporting cells (SCs) may continue to degenerate for months postexposure.
With short postexposure survivals, the remaining SCs often had pathological changes, including: buckled pillar bodies, shifted Deiters' cell (DC) nuclei, detachment of DCs from the basilar membrane and/or splitting of the reticular lamina. These pathological changes appeared to allow endolymph and perilymph to intermix in the fluid spaces of the organ of Corti, damaging additional HCs, SCs and nerve fibers. This mechanism may account for some postexposure degeneration. In ears exposed to moderate noise, some of these SC changes appeared to be reversible. In ears exposed to high-level noise, these changes appeared to indicate impending degeneration.