Autoradiographic and cytochemical procedures were employed to determine the cellular distribution of the Na,K-ATPase enzyme in the mammalian vestibular system. A light-microscope survey of vestibular tissues incubated with [3H]ouabain shows high densities of ouabain binding sites within the dark cell epithelium (DC) of the ampullae of the semi-circular canals, and to a lesser extent, the DC of the utricular macula. A moderate number of binding sites was found in nerve fibers penetrating the connective tissue beneath the sensory epithelium (SE) of the ampullae and the maculae. A small number of binding sites is distributed in the deep portion of the SE, both in the ampullae and in the maculae. These latter binding sites seem to be associated with nerve terminals and receptor cells. At the ultrastructural level, the vestibular dark cells exhibit extensive basolateral membrane infolding, a morphological hallmark of cells engaged in trans-epithelial ion transport. The cytochemical reaction product is K+-dependent, ouabain inhibitable, and is restricted to the basolateral membrane extensions, with little or no product on the luminal membrane. The extent of membrane infolding in dark cells of the utricle is less pronounced than that of the ampullar dark cells and the intensity of the cytochemical reaction appears to correlate with the extent of membrane infolding. The results support the widely held hypothesis that the vestibular dark cells play a role in endolymph production. They also suggest that the vestibular sensory epithelia may be a site of ion exchange. © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
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