Ongoing Research

The Center for Hearing and Deafness brings together an internationally recognized team of scientists and clinicians who have considerable experience working with different government agencies, private companies and foundations, and international organizations. Members of the Center are currently involved in research on a wide range of issues, including the following:

Drug Therapy and Ototoxic Drugs: Center scientists were among the first to discover that cis-platinum, one of the most common drugs used in chemotherapy, also causes hearing loss. New drugs are being developed and marketed at an ever-increasing rate; there is a critical need to evaluate their efficacy and their side effects. A continuing goal of the Center is to evaluate the ototoxic effects of new drugs and, conversely, the potential of other drugs to ameliorate hearing loss.

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss: Noise exposure is the most common cause of hearing loss in the adult population. Researchers at the Center are investigating what noise levels are dangerous, and are working to establish practical guidelines to protect individuals from noise-induced hearing loss in both work and recreational environments. Of particular interest is a current project that seeks to make the ear more resistant to noise through prophylactic noise exposure.

Middle Ear Disease: Middle ear infections, which are difficult to treat, represent one of the most common childhood afflictions. Working toward the goal of developing more effective therapies, including vaccines to prevent the disease, the Center is intensively studying the biological basis of the infection.

Infant Hearing Assessment: Early detection of hearing loss in infants is crucial to preventing abnormal social, emotional, and educational development. The Center is involved in developing and evaluating new methods of detecting hearing loss in infants and other difficult-to-test subjects. Of special interest in this regard is the refinement of cochlear otoacoustic emission testing, which may eventually lead to a rapid, low-cost method of screening all newborn infants for hearing loss.

Auditory Plasticity: Neuroscientists are finding that the electrical circuits of the brain are not fixed, but plastic; i.e., they can reorganize with stimulation or deprivation. Center researchers are studying how the central auditory system reorganizes itself when the peripheral auditory system is damaged or "cut off" from the central auditory system. This reorganzation has significant implications for developing better hearing aids and implantable cochlear prostheses used to treat the profoundly deaf.

Mechanical Transduction: At the most fundamental level, the process of hearing begins when sound activates mechanically gated channels on the sensory hair cells in the ear, thereby converting sound into neural activity. Researchers at the Center are currently investigating the physiological, mechanical, and molecular characteristics of these mechanically gated channels. Understanding such fundamental processes is the first step toward developing more powerful diagnostic and treatment programs for hearing loss.

Age-Related Hearing Loss: Many people experience a deterioration of their hearing abilities as they get older. Such age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis, can significantly impair an individual’s communication and social skills. Center scientists are working to understand the genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to presbycusis in an effort to determine which anatomical structures in the ear and auditory brain change with age, and what effect this has on hearing.

Central Auditory Processing: Some forms of hearing loss are contributable not to abnormal sensory processing, but to impaired information processing in the brain. Center clinicians and scientists are studying the contribution of disturbances in the central auditory system and the resultant effects on the process of learning language, reading, and verbal communication.

Hair Cell Regeneration: Until very recently, deafness was considered a permanent, untreatable disease. In the past five years there has been a major breakthrough: it was discovered that, in certain species, the sensory cells that are destroyed during deafness can regenerate. Members of the Center have been studying the processes that regulate the regeneration of sensory cells in the inner ear, with the aim of understanding the signals that trigger the regeneration of inner ear sensory and support cells. The long-term objective of this research is to develop a medical treatment for restoring the hearing of profoundly deaf individuals.