It seems that scientific breakthroughs come at a near-alarming pace these days. With studies of genetics ramping up and the use of artificial intelligence in speeding up the process of inquiry into new areas, it’s difficult to keep up with the news of new medical treatments and technological advancements.
Hearing loss has been one of the most persistent human ailments for millennia, and has increased in frequency since the Industrial Revolution. Now more than ever, noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) affects more and more of the population, with as much as 17% of teenagers experiencing some degree of hearing loss in one or both ears. And about 1 out of 300 children will experience the effects of congenital hearing loss by the age of 4. So, what is going on in the field of research about hearing loss? Is there a cure yet?
No Cure, But Hopeful Advancements
Unfortunately, there is not yet a cure for hearing loss. Perhaps the greatest advancement in treatment in history is the cochlear implant. Since most hearing loss is caused by degeneration of some aspect of the ear, from the eardrum to the cilia (tiny hair-like cells) inside the cochlea which transduce vibrational energy into electricity, the cochlear implant bypasses all of this, using a microphone to deliver electrical energy directly to the auditory nerve, which takes the electrical information to the brain. This is truly exciting technology, though at present it is not capable of restoring normal hearing. A patient fitted with cochlear implants could expect to be able to understand some speech and be able to tell when medium-to-loud sounds are present, but it functions more as an assistive technology to the practice of reading lips than a complete restoration of hearing ability.
Studies in Gene Therapy
There are also great advancements occurring in gene therapy, where an international team of scientists has successfully regrown cilia inside the cochlea of genetically deaf mice. It is still a long way off, but this gene therapy could eventually be used to create the ability to hear in many deaf-born children, depending on the type of gene responsible for the malfunction.
A team at Stanford University has found that nearly all hearing loss involves some element of genetic predisposition. This includes even AHRI (age-related hearing impairment) and NIHL. Having successfully diagnosed the root of hearing loss, research can be more efficiently directed at the genetic causes underlying it.
Currently, there are gene therapy drugs in clinical trials at Columbia University, Johns-Hopkins, and the University of Kansas. These drugs have been shown to regrow cilia in pre-clinical trials, and teams are hopeful that they will be able to partially reverse hearing loss in participants. While not likely to lead to a complete restoration of normal hearing ability any time soon, even some amount of reversal can greatly increase the effectiveness of traditional treatments like hearing aids.
Hearing Aids Have Gotten Better
By far, the most common and effective treatment for incremental hearing loss is hearing aids. The technology here has made great advancements over the past decades, as well, leading to hearing aids that can help reduce background noise while boosting the level of speech, while they have also gotten smaller and can integrate with Bluetooth and other technologies to make many everyday experiences easier on the wearer.
Preventing Hearing Loss
Still, the old adage that “prevention is better than treatment” rings true. While not all hearing loss is preventable, NIHL can be slowed or eliminated with the regular use of hearing protection like earplugs or earmuffs, depending on the activity. Cell phones now can download apps that measure the dBA (sound level measured in “decibels A-weighted”) of the environment you’re in. If you find yourself surrounded by volume levels at or in excess of 85 dBA (about the volume of a gas-powered lawnmower), pop in some earplugs. Remember that even noise levels that are not uncomfortable, if exposure lasts for even a few hours, can cause permanent hearing damage.
With hearing loss on the rise, don’t take risks with your hearing. While there is a great deal of hope for an eventual cure for hearing loss, it is likely a long way off, so take care of the hearing you have and get your hearing tested regularly. The earlier you catch hearing loss, the earlier you can adjust your behavior to prevent further loss!