Humans are unable to reverse the effects of hearing loss, but a biological process found in other animal species may hold the key to reversing this widespread problem.
How the brain interprets sounds is a relatively simple process.
First, a sound enters the ear via soundwaves. It then moves down the ear until it hits the eardrum.
Next, the eardrum vibrates and sends these vibrations to bones in the middle ear, which then boost them.
Eventually, hair-like cells in the inner ear or cochlea pick up these vibrations and transform them into electrical signals that the brain can process.
Age or excessive exposure to loud noise can damage the cochlea, resulting in permanent hearing loss.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), hearing loss affects more than 400 million people around the world today.
Some people experience more severe loss than others, and traditional treatment involves devices such as hearing aids. The effectiveness of these depends on the individual.
However, scientists have long known that animals such as fish and birds are able to keep their hearing intact by regenerating the sensory hair cells found in the cochlea. In fact, mammals are the only vertebrates that are unable to do this.
Testing the inner ear
In 2012, Dr. Patricia White's laboratory identified a group of receptors responsible for this regeneration process.
The researchers called this group the epidermal growth factor, or EGF, which switches on support cells in the auditory system of birds. These support cells then spark the production of new sensory hair cells.
Now, in a new study that they have published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, Dr. White - together with researchers from the University of Rochester and the Massachusetts Ear and Eye Infirmary - show how they tried to recreate this process in mammals.