If you’ve been a reader of We’re All Ears for a while then you may be familiar with the delicate hair cells of your inner ears and their importance to hearing.
What are hair cells?
The tiny hair cells in the cochlea are vital to the transmission, interpretation and understanding of sounds. In a healthy ear, these hair cells, when viewed under very powerful magnification, appear to look like tightly grouped, and well organised alien cities with uniform rows of clustered skyscrapers. When functioning properly, the tiny rows of fine hair cells collect minute air vibrations and utilising their uniformity they transmit the impulses to the brain as a signal to be decoded as a sound.
However, for a person who is experiencing hearing loss, the hair cells look like a devastated city. The inside of an ear with hair cells that have been damaged seems like a barren wasteland with fallen buildings and only a few trampled flowers still left standing.
These hair cells are extremely delicate and very susceptible to damage from loud and sustained noises. The sensory fibres, once damaged, never repair themselves. As a result, when the hair cells are gone, hearing loss is permanent.
There may be some good news
However, there is some hope on the horizon. Current researchers into inner ear cells are investigating the potential to regenerate these important hair cells. A team at Creighton University, in Omaha Nebraska, has developed a technique for controlling gene expression to aid in the regeneration of these sensory hair cells, potentially restoring balance and even hearing. By modulating a specific gene, they have seen the regrowth of inner ear hair cells in mice. The group responsible for making this discovery state that it is possible that in time these hair cells could be made to regenerate to their previous state, opening up the possibility of restoring hearing and allowing people to regain their balance.
The research is continuing, but it does look promising.
What can you do?
In the meantime, the best cure is prevention. Protecting your inner ear cells from the damage done by loud rock concerts or other noises can be as simple as wearing protective ear buds when in situations which have the potential to cause hearing loss.