Hearing is one of the many things that we all take for granted until it fails. At least that’s how it was for me. In October of 2012 I woke up to ringing in my right ear, it was something that happened before and I expected it to go away after a couple of minutes. Needless to say, the ringing didn’t stop; as matter of fact, it got worse. The day later, I began to experience deafness, I was constantly nauseous, and to make matters worse, I was suffering from vertigo – a symptom that prevents you from balancing properly. All of this happened in a matter of three days.
Luckily for me, I was able to see a doctor within two days. Unfortunately, the technology that we currently have is not advanced enough to be able to see inside your ear. They can give you an MRI, but even then the technology cannot zoom in into the inner workings of the ear. This means that they couldn’t tell me exactly what happened. They ended up giving me a strong dose of steroids hoping that they would have some effect on my hearing and bring some of my hearing back to normal – it worked. I didn’t gain my full hearing back, but I could now eco-locate sounds to know where the sound was coming from.
Ever since that day, I became extremely interested in hearing loss advancements and technology to help people regain their hearing loss. It seems that in the past 10 years we’ve made a tremendous leap in the way that we treat some hearing conditions. The last couple of years have brought great discoveries on regenerative medicine, now we can add one more to the list with a hearing loss breakthrough.
Scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Harvard Medical School were able to restore partial hearing in mice that suffered from sensorineural hearing loss – this is a condition that happens after a prolonged exposure to loud noise. People in the military tend to suffer from this condition due to gun fire. Unlike the elderly that get this condition from age, young people are starting to suffer this hearing loss due to concerts, MP3 players, and general “I can last longer than you inside this loud car”
This new discovery could someday help people get their hearing back. Dr. Albert Edge conducted the study that appeared in the January 10 Issue of Neuron
According to the study, hair cells in the cochlea are responsible for transmitting sound to the brain. However, the cells begin to decline with age, toxins, long term exposure to noise, infections, antibiotics, and other drugs. Eventually the cochlea loses all its hairs and the hearing pathway is blocked and prevents the signals from being received in the auditory cortex of the brain.
Unlike other animals, mammals do not have the ability to regenerate these hair cells, once they start to die off, they don’t come back. The lack of hair cells causes less sound to reach the main area of the brain responsible for turning that sound into an actual “sound” that we can understand.
This lack of sound is what causes ringing in the ears, a condition known as tinnitus. When there is no sound, your ears begin to produce this “ringing” to compensate for the lack of sound. Tinnitus affects a huge number of people across the world, and sadly there is no cure or treatment for the ringing. I’ve lived with tinnitus for 3 months now, and I can honestly say it is annoying. Sometimes I completely ignore the fact that it’s there, other times, it’s so loud that you can’t fall asleep.
This new treatment targets the endogenous cells left in the cochlea. Using a drug they call LY411575, they were able to transform ear cells into hair cells. This drug resulted in the partial recovery of hearing in mice who were deafened by the researchers by being exposed to loud noise. The drug is injected directly into the cochlear region of the deaf ear, then, after the inhibition of a protein called Notch, the hair cells grew.
The technology is still fairly new, the mice didn’t regain full hearing, but they were able to regain more hearing than they had. This, at the end of it all, is better than nothing.
Read this entire study here.