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New Discoveries In Hair Cell Growth

Kathy Peck

Of the 28 million cases of deafness or hearing impairment reported in the United States today, some 80% are examples of sensorineural deafness nerve deafness most often due to the malfunctioning of the hair cells of the inner ear. These hair cells, which line the snail-shaped cochlea, convert sound waves into electrical impulses that are passed on to the brain. Until now, even the most advanced medical technology didn't hold much hope for the hearing loss that results when hair cells die from aging, infection, or noise damage: Hair cells weren't thought to regenerate, and anyone with nerve deafness was condemned to a life of silence. But new results, based on studies of fish, birds, and mice, suggest that the ear's cells may indeed be capable of regeneration suggesting that this process is regulated by chemicals in the cell's environment.

The regeneration starts when the supporting cells directly below the damaged hair cells, responding to some unknown cue, reenter the cycle of cell division and begin to proliferate. Although researchers caution that the possibility of relieving deafness remains remote, what has been discovered recently is impressive. Even if mammals can regenerate hair cells, that might not be enough for recovery of hearing. Researchers point out that hearing loss often involves additional damage to structures around the hair cells that would also have to be repaired. And any new hair cells would have to develop functional connections to the brain. If they can make that key step (and many in the field believe this is a real possibility) many deaf people might have a chance at regaining the world of sound.


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