For the past few decades, hearing aids have been one of the only therapies available for individuals with hearing loss. And with the introduction of digital signal processing technology, the size of modern devices has shrunk so much that hearing aids have become highly discreet and barely noticeable. Despite these technological advancements, hearing aids do not cure hearing loss or restore normal hearing; rather, they treat the symptoms of underlying problems.
The biological mechanisms underlying many of these problems have long eluded scientists, until now. Researchers at Stanford University are closer than ever to developing therapies that may not only remedy the symptoms of hearing loss but cure hearing loss – permanently.
Many of these approaches are focused around hair cells, a set of sensory receptors in the inner ear. Thousands of hair cells are placed along the snail-like cochlea duct and are responsible for converting the sound vibrations from the middle ear into electrical impulses. These impulses are then sent through the auditory nerve to the brain, which perceives them as sound.
Avoiding Hearing Loss: Growing New Hair Cells
In some cases, individuals with hearing loss have difficulty identifying high-frequency sounds (i.e., the voices of children). A new therapy aims to regenerate damaged hair cells that prevent individuals from hearing these sounds through the use of stem cell technology. In other words, researchers would grow new cells to replace damaged cells.
Transforming Genes to Avoid Hearing Loss
Seventy percent of the most common forms of hearing loss are associated with three genes. Accordingly, another treatment aims to utilize gene therapy to override defective genes that are associated with the genetic causes of hearing loss.
Hearing Loss Prevention Pill
What if restoring your hearing was as easy as taking a pill? A third line of research aims to not only restore normal hearing but also prevent hearing loss. With the ultimate goal of stimulating auditory nerve growth, novel drugs are being designed to make treating hearing loss as simple as treating a common cold.
Laser Stimulation for Hearing Loss Prevention
While targeting auditory hair cells is a viable treatment option, a fourth approach seeks to bypass hair cells altogether and focus directly on stimulating the auditory nerve. Specifically, this therapy aims to produce hardware that will stimulate the auditory nerve with lasers – eliminating the need for the ear to conduct sound, a mechanism that is often the root of the problem for individuals with hearing loss.
Although these therapies offer a glimpse into what is possible, clinical trials are not slated to start for another decade. Until then, advances in modern digital hearing aids, like those CIC and BTE hearing aids offered by Audicus will be the first line of treatment for the 35 million Americans with hearing loss.
Sources: Audicus, Better Hearing Institute, Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss