The etiology of hearing impairment following cochlear damage can be caused by many factors, including congenital or acquired onset, ototoxic drugs, noise exposure, and aging. Regardless of the many different etiologies, a common pathologic change is auditory cell death. It may be difficult to explain hearing impairment only from the aspect of cell death including apoptosis, necrosis, or necroptosis because the level of hearing loss varies widely. Therefore, we focused on autophagy as an intracellular phenomenon functionally competing with cell death. Autophagy is a dynamic lysosomal degradation and recycling system in the eukaryotic cell, mandatory for controlling the balance between cell survival and cell death induced by cellular stress, and maintaining homeostasis of postmitotic cells, including hair cells (HCs) and spiral ganglion neurons (SGNs) in the inner ear. Autophagy is considered a candidate for the auditory cell fate decision factor, whereas autophagy deficiency could be one of major causes of hearing impairment. In this paper, we review the molecular mechanisms and biologic functions of autophagy in the auditory system and discuss the latest research concerning autophagy-related genes and sensorineural hearing loss to gain insight into the role of autophagic mechanisms in inner-ear disorders.
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