October 9, 2008

Researchers Discover That Key Protein Helps Hearing

On Wednesday, French researchers reported that a protein in the inner ear helps people understand speech and differentiate between sounds.  The finding could help treat those hard of hearing.

According to Paul Avan, a researcher from the University of Auvergne, the study also explains why some people have difficultly hearing in noisy places.

"This won't help cure deafness but will help diagnose why some people have hearing problems, especially in noisy places," said Avan, who worked on the study.

The research, which used mice, looked at the cochlea, a part of the inner ear that contains two types of cells that detect sound.

Before the study, people believed ion channels, tiny structures found in the cells that transform sound into electrical impulses, caused distortion of sound in the inner ear.

According to Avan, distortion is important because it allows people to pick out sounds from a mixture of noises.

The researchers showed that stereocilin, a type of protein, was keeping sensory cells intact and allowing the inner ear to distort sounds properly, not ion channels which was the previous belief.

In the study, mice without stereocilin did not hear properly even when their ion channels were working properly.

The findings could help doctors better diagnose subtle hearing problems, and develop better hearing aids to eliminate noise.

"Until now it was thought that if the ion channels worked everything would be okay," Avan said. "We show that this is not the case. Sensitivity will be good but that does nothing if you don't understand anything if it is noisy around you."


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