Northwestern researchers find system in ear provides clues about hearing conditions

Olivia Exstrum, Campus Editor

New research from scientists at Northwestern Medicine has discovered a connection from the cochlea to the brain that serves as a “secret bodyguard” from loud noise that can cause damage and hearing loss in the ear, the University announced Wednesday.

The research suggests that the ear has its own pain system that protects it from damaging noise. The scientists’ discovery may help the treatment of hearing conditions like hyperacusis, an oversensitivity to noise, and tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears.

“It’s very important for your system to have protection from damaging sound,” said Jaime Garcia-Anoveros, Feinberg School of Medicine professor and senior author of the study, in a University news release. “When sensory hair cells in the ear die, they are not repopulated. That’s why hearing loss is irreversible. You need to be able to detect dangerous sound the way your nerve cells alert you to the danger of putting your hand on a hot iron.”

The study was conducted with mice, but Garcia-Anoveros said he believes a similar pathway also exists in humans. He said he wants to research it in humans next.

He said the discovery could be essential in dealing with conditions like ringing in one’s ears or hypersensitivity to sound. The pain system may trigger a reflex, such as a sensation of pain that forces one to cover their ears after hearing a loud noise, to reduce the level of sound in the ear.

“We do not know how to treat these debilitating conditions, and understanding what neuronal pathway might be involved is essential,” Garcia-Anoveros said in the release. “If we find they are actually pain syndromes rather than hearing syndromes, perhaps they could be treated effectively with analgesic pain medication that acts on the brain.”

Next, NU scientists hope to see how the brain is involved in processes of the pain system.

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