Searching for the Key to Reverse Deafness

The majority of human hearing loss is caused by damage to sensory hair cells that reside within the inner ear. Learning how these cells work, and whether they can be regenerated, is a potential means of someday being able to reverse deafness.

James Hudspeth, M.D., Ph.D., has made it his life’s work to study and understand hearing at a molecular level. His primary area of focus is the development and operation of the hair cells that serve as the inner ear’s sensory receptors. These hair cells do not naturally regenerate, and their disappearance underlies hearing decline and loss.

Discovering a way to regenerate these hair cells—and thus restore hearing in those who are experiencing hearing loss—is the ultimate goal of Dr. Hudspeth’s work.

“Fundamentally, the motivation for what we do is that there are 30 million people in the United States who have significant hearing problems. That’s 10% of us, and we all know someone in that category,” said Hudspeth. “Worldwide, it is estimated that 450 million people have hearing problems, and that’s probably a low estimate. So it’s an enormous issue.”

The Science Behind How We Hear

The majority of the work conducted by Hudspeth and his team at the Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience at The Rockefeller University in New York City involves stimulating, observing, and analyzing hair cells at high magnification. Hudspeth and his staff currently have ten Olympus microscopes in full-time use.

“We started using Olympus microscopes 25 years ago, and we have continued to do so for two main reasons,” said Hudspeth. “First, the microscope quality is very high—the instruments, the lenses, and all of the parts are of excellent fabrication. Second, and probably more importantly, Olympus personnel are always willing to listen to us about our need for specialized products and to make modifications available that allow us to better perform our work.”

“If we’re trying to achieve a certain thing, and we want to know how we can do it, Olympus is there to answer our questions.”

There are more than 200 different genes that, when mutated, can cause hearing loss. Hudspeth’s team, and many other similar groups, use microscopy extensively to try and further understand these mutations by observing cells that have been damaged and determining how the damage has occurred.

This research leads to developmental studies. “We have screened 80,000 compounds, seeking those that might serve as potential agents to regrow hair cells,” said Hudspeth. “We have found six that look plausible, and one that has shown to be very effective in causing replication of supporting cells (cells that turn into hair cells). We are now working with a biotech company to turn this compound into a drug that could eventually be used on humans.”

Our long-term mission is to help people who are losing their hearing or have lost their hearing to hear again.”

The Science Behind How We Hear The Science Behind How We Hear The Science Behind How We Hear
The Science Behind How We Hear The Science Behind How We Hear The Science Behind How We Hear