Scientists Harvest Brain Cells to Cure Hearing Loss
Hearing loss occurs when “hair cells” in the ear are damaged, and whether the damage occurred from too much exposure to loud noise or just as a natural part of the aging process, it is permanent.
Hair cells allow us to perceive sound by transmitting sound waves to our brains as electrical impulses, and as their function deteriorates, so does our hearing. Unlike birds, humans are not able to regenerate these microscopic cells—at least, not naturally.
Because the hair cells can’t be repaired, researchers began to look for other cells that might be able to serve as substitutes, and it looks like they may have found them. In a recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researcher Ebenezer Yamoah, Ph.D., said we may be only a few years out from a solution to permanent hearing loss.
Yamoah was the senior author of a study at the University of California, in which cells that line fluid-filled ventricles in the brain were implanted in the inner ear. Not only did the cells survive, but they began to behave like the hair cells around them.
Although the cells from the brain ventricles resemble the hair cells that line the inner ear, and are also made up of the same type of protein, Yamoah does not think the two types of cells are interchangeable. Rather, Yamoah said he believes that the brain cells are “taught” how to behave by hair cells in the inner ear.
The ability to replace hair cells in the ear may be a biological solution to the problem of severe, irreversible hearing loss. Currently the only option is to try to bypass the hair cells altogether by inserting cochlear implants in the inner ear, which unfortunately destroys all of the surrounding hair cells, including the healthy ones.
This new approach would allow people to hang on to their good cells and replace only the ones that are damaged, as needed. Initial findings are encouraging, but Yamoah said that there is more work to be done before scientists can determine if the brain cells are actually able to transmit electrical impulses to the brain, or if they are merely mimicking the actions of the hair cells around them. Experiments in deaf mice are currently underway to shed light on this critical question.
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