Researchers have restored the hearing of mice partially deafened by noise, using advanced tools to increase the production of a key protein in their ears. The findings highlight the crucial role the protein NT3 plays in the communication between the ears and brain.
The scientists from Harvard University and Michigan University increased the production of NT3 in the mice, causing them to regain their hearing over a two-week period.
Their work demonstrated the key role of cells that have traditionally been sidelined as the “supporting actors” of the ear-brain connection. Called supporting cells, they form a physical base for the ear’s “leading actors”: the sensitive hair cells that interact with the nerves that carry sound signals to the brain.
These supporting cells and the NT3 molecules they produce play a critical role. NT3 is vital to the body’s ability to form and maintain connections between hair cells and nerve cells. These special ribbon synapse connections allow extra-rapid communication within the two types of cells. Hearing loss can result when these connections become damaged by aging or exposure to noise.
“It has become apparent that hearing loss due to damaged ribbon synapses is a very common and challenging problem, whether it’s due to noise or normal ageing,” said Gabriel Corfas, who led the research team and directs the Kresge Hearing Research Institute at the University of Michigan.
“We began this work 15 years ago to answer very basic questions about the inner ear, and now we have been able to restore hearing after partial deafening with noise, a common problem for people. It’s very exciting,” said Corfas.
By revealing the key role NT3 plays in maintaining communication between the ears and brain, these promising findings pave the way for research in humans that could potentially improve treatment of hearing loss caused by ageing or noise exposure.
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