Efferent cholinergic neurons project from the brainstem to inhibit sensory hair cells of the vertebrate inner ear. This inhibitory synapse combines the activity of an unusual class of ionotropic cholinergic receptor with that of nearby calcium-dependent potassium channels to shunt and hyperpolarize the hair cell. Postsynaptic calcium signalling is constrained by a thin near-membrane cistern that is co-extensive with the efferent terminal contacts. The postsynaptic cistern may play an essential role in calcium homeostasis, serving as sink or source, depending on ongoing activity and the degree of buffer saturation. Release of calcium from postsynaptic stores leads to a process of retrograde facilitation via the synthesis of nitric oxide in the hair cell. Activity-dependent synaptic modification may contribute to changes in hair cell innervation that occur during development, and in the aged or damaged cochlea.
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