Twenty percent of Americans report hearing loss, and the problem gets worse with age. In many cases, this is due to damage to the sensitive inner workings of the ear, and the problem is usually not reversible. While some researchers continue to work on the technology that has made hearing aids better and more comfortable, others are focused on finding a cure altogether. Exciting new research shows they may be on the right path.
How Does Hearing Loss Work?
While other factors such as structural damage can cause hearing loss, the most common type of loss is sensorineural. This is caused by damage to the inner ear, and it is related to factors such as chemical exposure, noise exposure, and the natural process of aging. Each ear has a part called the cochlea, which is responsible for collecting sounds and transmitting them to the brain. There are about 15,000 hair cells called cilia that surround each cochlea, and it is these cells that help gather the sounds and make sense of them. While other human cells regenerate after they die, these sensitive cilia do not come back once they’re gone for humans. Once they become damaged and die, hearing loss gradually worsens. New research offers potential solutions to this problem.
USC and Harvard Research
Researchers at the University of Southern California and Harvard teamed up to find a new way to deliver drugs to the inner ear to help damaged cells and nerves. Because fluid is continuously flowing through the inner ear, drugs that could potentially work on fixing nerve cells get swept away. These scientists created an approach that combines effective medications with agents that bind to bone. This keeps the medicine in place where it’s supposed to be so that it can reach the intended damaged nerve cells. Once the molecule they developed to help improve hearing was combined with the drug that sticks to bone, it started working on enhancing neural processes and reconnecting the hair cells that are vital to hearing. This is an entirely new approach to getting to and repairing these cells.
This research is at its beginning stages, as the results are based on mouse cells, and the process has not been replicated on live animals or humans. Given the workings of the ear, however, the researchers believe that their process could lead to the successful regeneration of ear nerve cells in humans. They plan to continue their work until it is ready for human testing.
Researchers at MIT teamed up with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts Eye and Ear to come up with another approach to curing hearing loss that involves combining drugs. They focused on cells in the ear called progenitor cells, also known as supporting cells, and whether they could be changed into mature hair cells. They used progenitor cells from a mouse cochlea and introduced molecules to help make them increase. As a result, the researchers produced 60 times more mature hair cells than previous techniques. If this ability to produce hair cells from other cells works in humans, it could save the hearing of people as they age. This research is also in its first stages, and further testing is necessary to make sure it is as effective, and safe, in humans.
The Future of Hearing Loss Research
Many of the approaches are still in the initial testing phases, so you won’t be able to cure your hearing loss yet. Today, your best bet is still to get a hearing test to see if you have hearing loss. If you do, getting fitted for a good hearing aid will be more than enough to help you overcome any hearing loss you have.