Almost every day I see elderly customers who are struggling with inner ear problems. As an audiologist, providing effective treatment for their hearing loss with modern hearing aids is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. But even so, the day hearing aids become obsolete is a day I look forward to. And it’s a day that is a little bit closer thanks to groundbreaking research from scientists across the pond in the UK.
Researchers at University College London have found a way to coax support cells in the ear into becoming hair cells. These hair cells live in our inner ears and allow us to hear and to balance. When we lose them, we get hearing loss and dizzy spells, depending which hair cells are damaged. The researchers focused their efforts on the hair cells that help us balance.
And in case you’re wondering, they’re called hair cells because they have bristles on their tops that look like hairs.
What did the researchers do?
They took support cells from the human ear and added in a gene called ATOH1. It turns out that this gene kickstarts a chain reaction, switching on lots of other genes and causing the support cells to change shape too. They found that the support cells were turning into hair cells, complete with bristles on their tops.
What does this mean for people struggling with dizzy spells?
It means we are one step closer to being able to make hair cells that are responsible for our ability to balance. And if we can make them, we can replace ones that have been lost due to damage or old age. With dizziness caused by damaged hair cells being one of the leading causes of falls in the elderly, this would be a real game-changer.
If researchers can replicate this work for hair cells that allow us to hear, hearing loss could also become a thing of the past.
The road ahead
There is still a lot more work that needs doing before we can make hair cells of either variety in the lab. The researchers themselves acknowledge that the hair cells they created don’t entirely look the part and are not fully functional. But, it’s a big step in the right direction.
So, watch this space. Clarity Hearing will keep you updated on future leaps forward in hearing research.
Scott Marquardt is the owner of Clarity Hearing and a highly skilled audiologist who has been in practice for over 20 years. Dr. Marquardt earned a master’s degree in audiology from Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, and a doctorate from A.T. Still University. He is a member of the American Speech Language Hearing Association and a fellow of the American Academy of Audiology. He and the team offer comprehensive hearing healthcare services and specialize in the care of tinnitus, imbalance, and auditory processing disorders.