Research has been undertaken to identify the cells that ultimately produce inner ear hair cells, allowing us to hear properly – what is the implication of this discovery? It is hoped that this will allow for further study that could in turn lead to more effective treatment for the many types of inner ear problems that affect the hearing of millions of people.

When hair cells are damaged in mammals they are not regenerated by the body as many other types of cells are – the result is that hearing damage has always been considered permanent. This is in contrast to other types of animals like fish and birds whose inner ear cells can self-repair. Identification of the cells that give rise to specialized hearing cells should allow for future research that may be able to determine how they work, how damage could be repaired, and hearing restored.

The inner ear (cochlea) is shaped much like a shell, and the cells contained therein (hair cells) are very specialized in how they function – the shape of the ear and design of these cells combine in a way that allows the human ear to gather sound in a very unique manner. The hair cells vibrate in response to sounds much like grain blowing in the breeze, and these vibrations are then translated in the brain.

Approximately one fifth of those living in America (closer to one third amongst senior citizens) experience hearing loss to some degree – hearing aids are a common form of treatment, as are cochlear implants. The fact is however that both of these treatments only fight the symptoms of hearing loss – not the cause, hair cell damage.

It is hoped that current research on the cells that form hair cells will lead to development of new ways to regenerate such cells and attack hearing loss at its source – this is therefore one direction continued research on the subject is expected to take.