According to the World Health Organization, 360 million people worldwide have some form of hearing loss. At UpState Hearing, we feel fortunate that our jobs center around helping just some of these people hear again. Scientists continue to work on innovative techniques that may be able to transform millions of realities in the future—who knows, maybe you will benefit from one of these innovations someday!
How Do Our Ears Hear?
Before getting into these techniques, it is important to understand how hearing works. It follows a fairly simple pattern. Sound waves enter the ear canal and pulse the ear drum, which then moves tiny bones in the middle ear. They in turn tap the cochlea, a snail-like structure containing delicate hair cells and fluid. The cochlea converts mechanical signals into electrical ones, which it passes to the auditory nerve to transmit sounds to the brain. Deafness or hearing loss can be caused by disruptions at any step of this process, and the kind of intervention needed depends on the part affected. The following are some intriguing innovations coming into the hearing loss field.
Gene Therapy for Hereditary Deafness
In 2015, a team at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported using gene therapy to restore hearing in genetically deaf mice. They used a harmless virus to transport a gene deep into the ear that strengthened the outer hair cells which amplify sound, allowing the inner hair cells to then send a stronger signal to the brain. Cochlear implants work by circumventing the damaged hair cells, whereas the potential of gene therapy means that hair cells will actually be able to be repaired. The research has continued to the point that some mice have now been able to hear sounds down to a whisper, making it the most successful study into genetic hearing repair to date. Milestones such as this are what could pave the way for genetic treatments of the future.
You See the Light, But Can you HEAR the Light?
For people who lost their hearing later on in life, creating more sophisticated hearing devices might be next big step to improving their realities. People are able to recognize hundreds of voices, pitches, and frequencies, but in traditional cochlear implants sound resolution is nowhere near as clear. A researcher from the University Medical Center Göttingen is working diligently to improve that. Instead of the current practice of using electrical signals to transmit sounds, his idea for a new version of cochlear implants would turn sound into light. Micro-LED lights would flash to genetically altered neurons which would then carry sound information to the brain. This would enable a much greater array of sounds and more refined sound discrimination, creating similar results to normal hearing.
Reverting Cells to Previous States
Other researchers are working directly on the body’s cells to restore hearing. A researcher from Stanford University is working on a method to revert inner ear cells to their earlier functional state in order to hear again. This is through regenerating cells themselves and would enable people with progressive hearing loss to medicate early on in order to delay progression and the incoming need for hearing accessories.
We are born with about 15,000 hair cells per ear which, once damaged, cannot regrow. These tiny hair cells detect sounds in the inner ear and translate them into nerve signals that let us hear. One of the leading causes of hearing loss is damage to these cells. However, researchers at MIT have discovered a unique combination of drugs that increase the supporting cells in the ear, which can then generate hair cells. Another researcher from Harvard Medical School is focusing on molecular compounds that would enable cochlear hair cells and neurons from the auditory nerve to grow in order to restore hearing abilities to a former state. Turning back time is not something that is generally possible!
As in anything, progress in hearing loss will be a step-by-step process. Breakthroughs and exciting new options in genetic therapies, diagnostics, hearing aids, cochlear implants, and medications are on the horizon. We are hopeful that we will be able to utilize these advances one day in the not-too-distant future, as nothing beats your very own hearing! Until then, come by one of our locations for all of your hearing needs—you can find us in Redding, Chico, Red Bluff, and Susanville.