Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA
Statoacoustic ganglion (SAG) neurons send their peripheral processes to navigate into the inner ear sensory organs where they will ultimately become post-synaptic to mature hair cells. During early ear development, neuroblasts delaminate from a restricted region of the ventral otocyst and migrate to form the SAG. The pathfinding mechanisms employed by the processes of SAG neurons as they search for their targets in the periphery are the topic of this review. Multiple lines of evidence exist to support the hypothesis that a combination of cues are working to guide otic axons to their target sensory organs. Some pioneer neurites may retrace their neuronal migratory pathway back to the periphery, yet additional guidance mechanisms likely complement this process. The presence of chemoattractants in the ear is supported by in vitro data showing that the otic epithelium exerts both trophic and tropic effects on the statoacoustic ganglion. The innervation of ectopic hair cells, generated after gene misexpression experiments, is further evidence for chemoattractant involvement in the pathfinding of SAG axons. While the source(s) of chemoattractants in the ear remains unknown, candidate molecules, including neurotrophins, appear to attract otic axons during specific time points in their development. Data also suggest that classical axon repellents such as Semaphorins, Eph/ephrins and Slit/Robos may be involved in the pathfinding of otic axons. Morphogens have recently been implicated in guiding axonal trajectories in many other systems and therefore a role for these molecules in otic axon guidance must also be explored.