Never underestimate the wonders of science. According to reports published by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers have discovered that the use of gene replacement therapy can stimulate hair growth—inner ear hair growth, that is.

Indeed, this is good news for millions of individuals who suffer from nonreparable sensorineural hearing loss, caused by noise, disease, trauma, medications, and hereditary factors, which can damage the structure of the hair cells, resulting in hearing loss and tinnitus. The aforementioned affect cochlea-based hair cells (or hair bundles), which carry nerve impulses to the auditory center of the brain, where they are interpreted as sound. Once destroyed, these cells can neither regenerate nor be repaired, and the loss has been considered permanent, corrected only by hearing aids.

Until this research began, the only species genetically capable of inner ear hair cell regeneration were birds and reptiles. Early experiments on gene transfer procedures conducted in laboratory rodents have resulted in hair cell growth, giving scientists hope that the new cells will attract fibers of the auditory nerve, thus reestablishing the link to the auditory cortex of the brain. Optimistic researchers hope to duplicate this success in humans within the next 10 to 20 years—improving severe hearing loss, or even reversing profound deafness.

However, until that long-awaited day, the best protection against hearing loss is still an ounce of prevention, a message that more and more audiologists and hearing industry professionals are trying to convey to the general public. They are participating in public outreach and educational programs on the importance of hearing protection and how easy it is to access. In the meantime, we patiently await the positive results of further research.

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Rogena Schuyler Silverman
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