March 7, 2008
Science of hearing loss moving near speed of sound
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Tiny computers, capable of screening out noise and amplifying pertinent sounds, prevent those problems.
"I get very excited about it, because it fills a niche that's been very difficult to fill," House said. "People don't like the ear to be completely plugged up. They like to hear their own voice."
Despite the resounding success of all these technologies and techniques, however, many of them may, in decades to come, become as irrelevant as VHS tape.
"We won't have a need for some of these technologies, because we'll be able to regenerate the cochlear hair cells that allow us to hear," House said. "One of the major projects here is related to finding the genes responsible for age-related hearing loss. As we identify those genes, we hope some day we will be able to manipulate those genes and do gene therapy, and not only treat hearing loss but prevent it.
"Some animals -- chickens and fish and frogs -- can regenerate their hair cells," House said. "Destroy the hair cells in a baby chick, and within two weeks they grow back. In humans, or any mammal, they don't grow back. Now we have been somewhat successful in regrowing hair cells in rats. That's a long way from humans, but we're beginning to find out what the key is to turn it back on again."
Small wonder that House is able to envision reducing the one-third of people who develop significant hearing loss by age 60 to 10 percent -- or even 5 percent -- within the next 20 years. And beyond that time, House foresees the problems of hearing loss receding still further with advances in areas including hearing-aid technology, surgical reconstruction and prostheses. Once scientists begin to understand how we hear on molecular and cellular levels, hearing loss may become an unheard-of anachronism.
"Today. we can replace ear drums [and] ear bones, and that's something we do on a daily basis," House said. "By 50 years in the future, hearing loss will be mostly preventable or curable."
Robert Ebisch has written for USA Today, Science News, the Washington Post, Consumers Digest and Wireless Review.
The Future of Hearing
"We will hopefully see hearing aids that have better distinction of hearing and noise, and better appreciation of music," said John House, president of the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. "We may see fully implantable hearing aids, so we don't have to wear the external hearing aid, and we should be able to identify a large number of the genes responsible for hearing loss."
Scientists will begin to be able to alter genes to prevent certain types of hearing loss. Penetrating auditory brainstem implants, which wire sound directly to the brain, will become more common. Cochlear implants will also become more common for people with mild hearing loss. Patients can expect surgical approaches that will be simpler and can be done by a wider variety of surgeons.
Stimulating hair cells so they'll regenerate will be on the horizon, as well as restoring hearing to those who have lost their hearing to age, loud noise and certain diseases. These and other techniques and devices could reduce age-related hearing loss from one-third of the population older than 60 to 10 percent or even 5 percent.
Hearing loss will be mostly preventable or curable, and it may even be possible, prior to conception of their children, to alter the genes of parents so they don't pass on their predisposition to age-related hearing loss.
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