Inner hair cell (IHC) ribbon synapses are the first synapse in the auditory system and can be degenerated by noise and aging, thereby leading to hidden hearing loss (HHL) and other hearing disorders. However, the mechanism underlying this cochlear synaptopathy remains unclear. Here, we report that elevation of extracellular K+, which is a consequence of noise exposure, could cause IHC ribbon synapse degeneration and swelling. Like intensity dependence in noise-induced cochlear synaptopathy, the K+-induced degeneration was dose-dependent, and could be attenuated by BK channel blockers. However, application of glutamate receptor (GluR) agonists caused ribbon swelling but not degeneration. In addition, consistent with synaptopathy in HHL, both K+ and noise exposure only caused IHC but not outer hair cell ribbon synapse degeneration. These data reveal that K+ excitotoxicity can degenerate IHC ribbon synapses in HHL, and suggest that BK channel may be a potential target for prevention and treatment of HHL.

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Published in Communications Biology, v. 4, article no. 24.

© The Author(s) 2021

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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This work was supported by NIH R01 DC 017025 and R56 DC 016585 to H.B.Z.

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