The small hearing cells (called hair cells) in mammals, such as humans, have limited ability to repair themselves after trauma. For this reason, when our hair cells are damaged due to noise, trauma or aging (wear-and-tear), we suffer permanent (sensorineural) hearing loss.
In contrast, the hair cells in invertebrates such as anemones, when severely traumatised can recover after a period of time due to the presence of a specific, secreted proteins named “Repair Proteins”. These Repair Proteins are giving scientist hope that one day we may be able to repair damaged hair cells in the inner ear and restore our hearing. This would be a true step forward in aural rehabilitation.
Scientist Pei-Ciao Tang, Karen Muller Smith and Glen Watson in a paper recently published in the Journal of Experimental Biology showed that damaged outer hair cells in mice were able to repair themselves when treated with a solution containing the repair protein from the anemone.
In their experiment, Tang and Watson took the outer hair cells from the inner ear of mice and induced damaged to the hair cells. They then took these hair cells and immersed them into a solution containing the repair protein. After 1 hour, the scientists were able to show that the hair cells recovered sufficiently and behaved similarly to undamaged hair cells. In contrast when left untreated the hair cells, as expected remained damaged. The result can be seen in the picture below which shows the scan of the undamaged hair cell, damaged and untreated hair cells and damaged but repaired hair cells respectively. Each bright spot indicates the hair cells.
These results and others that are undertaking similar type of research in the restorative ability of certain animals to repair damaged hair cells gives hope that one day we may find a permanent treatment to hearing loss. However as noted by Debbie Clason in the Heathy Hearing article, the research is in very early stages and is not expected to yield meaningful changes to how we presently treat permanent hearing loss.
To date and the most effective way to treat sensorineural hearing loss is by using digital hearing aids. Numerous studies indicate that when hearing loss is effectively treated and managed, a person’s quality of life improves significantly, which helps prevent further medical conditions exacerbated by hearing loss such as anxiety, depression and social isolation.
As clinical audiologists, research like this is informative and exciting, however, we are realistic about the long lead time such research will take to become everyday reality. So as encouraging as this research is, if you have hearing loss, you should not wait to have your hearing loss treated. Modern, digital hearing aids are amazing and when fitted by a qualified audiologist, will be highly effective at helping you overcome and manage your hearing problems.
Research article from the Journal of Experimental Biology
Repair of traumatized mammalian hair cells via sea anemone repair proteins – Pei-Ciao Tang, Karen Müller Smith, Glen M. Watson
Journal of Experimental Biology 2016 219: 2265-2270; doi: 10.1242/jeb.135459
Sea anemone proteins could repair damaged hearing – http://phys.org/news/2016-08-sea-anemone-proteins.html
Study reveals sea anemone proteins could help restore hearing – http://www.healthyhearing.com/report/52696-Study-reveals-sea-anemone-proteins-could-help-restore-hearing