Katie Kindt, Ph.D., Chief
Sensory hair cells are specialized mechanoreceptors that are required to reliably transmit auditory and vestibular information to the brain. In humans, hair cell death is responsible for permanent hearing loss and vestibular dysfunction, as our hair cells do not regenerate. In order to develop effective clinical treatments to restore hearing and balance in humans, we must learn how to replace or regenerate hair cells and integrate them into the downstream circuitry. Prior to hair cell regeneration, it is critical to first understand how hair cells function and how they are formed in vivo. Therefore, the mission of the Section on Sensory Cell Development and Function is to investigate the function and in vivo assembly of the hair cell system.
In mammals, the auditory and vestibular organs are encased in the dense petrous bone, making it impossible to study how these sensory organs form or function in their native environment. Therefore, our research utilizes zebrafish, which contain sensory hair cells within their lateral lines that can easily be studied in vivo. Furthermore, in zebrafish, hair cells regenerate, allowing us to gather insight into how to stimulate regeneration in a native sensory system. Zebrafish is a relevant model to examine hair cell systems, as numerous studies have shown that the same core genes are required for hearing and balance in humans, mice, and zebrafish. Our work uses this relevant, genetically tractable model by combining powerful functional and time-lapse imaging, electrophysiology, and behavioral analyses to comprehensively dissect the molecular and functional requirements underlying the assembly and function of hair cell systems in vivo.
The questions we currently ask include:
- How do collections of sensory cells, synapses, and neurons coordinate to encode sensory information?
- How does sensory activity impact circuit assembly, function, and health?
- What molecules are required to set up sensory function and synapse specificity?