Scientists Make Major Breakthrough in Cure for Deafness

Do you want the the good news or the bad news first?

For those who like to crank up the volume when listening to music through headphones I have some bad news.  It is very likely that you are destroying your hearing.

According to researchers at the University of Leicester, you may be damaging the myelin sheath that insulates and protects the auditory nerve fibers that are needed to hear. The good news is that the hearing loss is temporary because apparently this coating can reform and hearing is restored. Hurray!

Well… before we celebrate and turn up the Metallica to 10, I have more bad news. The inner hair cells that receive and transmit sound to the auditory pathways can also be damaged. This leads to Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) which is permanent.  NIHL is increasing at an alarming rate in teenagers who seem to have ear buds permanently implanted in their ears these days! In fact, 1-6 high school students are estimated to have some degree of hearing loss, with over 50% reporting at least one hearing loss symptom.

Given we all like happy endings let me share some more good news. Scientists at the University of Sheffield have made a major research breakthrough by restoring gerbils’ hearing using human stem cells. This research means that potentially these same stem cells could be used in humans to help the deaf hear again. Indeed very exciting given more than 30 million Americans suffer from hearing loss.

We will need to stand by and watch this research unfold. In the meantime, let me provide some sound advice with my three tips for safe headphone listening.

Tip 1. Keep volume low when listening through headphones.

Why? The lower the volume, the less likely you are to damage your hearing.

Tip 2. Limit headphone listening to no more than one hour at a time.

Why? The longer you listen through headphones the more fatigued the middle ear muscles become.  Auditory fatigue reduces the ear’s ability to protect the delicate inner ear hair cells from becoming damaged by loud sound.

Tip 3. Use high quality headphones that cover the ear.

Why? They sound better at lower volume allowing you to enjoy all the details of your favorite music without the risk of hearing loss. Over the ear headphones provide a more natural form of listening than an in ear headphone inserted in the ear canal. Over the ear headphones also reduce background noise allowing for lower listening volumes. What is high quality? Without getting into specifics spend at least $80, and know that generally the bigger your budget, the better the headphones.

Stress Response System in the Ear Protects Against Hearing Loss

The ear serves in part as an environmental monitoring system, sending the brain signals in response to vibrational input to understand the world around us; to move, learn, communicate, adapt, survive and thrive.

The middle ear is the gateway to a neural filtering system that helps us receive auditory information such as human speech and to simultaneously filter out unwanted sound or noise which can damage the delicate structures of the inner ear resulting in hearing loss, hyperacousis, stress, and a host of other problems. 

Many recognize the vital connection between the ear and body’s fight-flight response, which is physiologically linked from the middle ear to the vagal regulation system. The polyvagal theory of psychologist Stephen Porges provides a clear understanding of this mechanism. The Listening Program® with bone conduction technology is used in part as a training method to improve the function of this system.

Now a new in vivo study at Tufts University shows for the first time that there is a stress response system within the cochlea (inner ear) that mirrors the signaling pathways of the fight-flight response and protects against noise induced hearing loss. This is an exciting finding that further reveals what a marvel the auditory system is and the critical role it plays in our lives.

Read more about the Tufts study.

What’s That Buzzing Sound?

Flashback to 1985, its 2:00 a.m. and I ask my friend what that buzzing sound is. “What sound?” he replies. I can’t figure out where this strange noise is coming from and he tells me he can’t hear it. This was incredibly disquieting and led to a sleepless night. We were on winter break in my freshman year of college and had just returned from a concert by one of my favorite California Punk Rock bands (who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent) at the Utah State Fairgrounds in Salt Lake City.

As a child I experienced ear infections, had ear tubes, and later developed hyperacousis which is sensitivity to certain sounds. On this fateful night at age 17, listening to loud, hard charging music my apparently fragile auditory system reached a threshold where it could no longer offer protection from this sustained aural assault. I experienced an acoustic trauma which quite likely started the ringing in my ears which I later learned was called tinnitus.

I’m one of the fortunate people who only have brief experiences with these unusual noises seemingly created from within. They are short lived and only occur when I am under acute stress.  However there are millions far less fortunate including my wife who have sustained and often punishing perception of noise. She suffers from a hearing loss and what is often unbearable tinnitus.

Paradoxically an article just came to my attention titled “That Buzzing Sound- The mystery of tinnitus”. It was published in today’s issue of The New Yorker-Digital Edition. The author is Jerome Groopman who opens with a similar experience to my own where he makes the rather unpleasant discovery of a phantom noise that only he could perceive. Huge advancements have been made in tinnitus research and treatment. This is a well researched article that I highly encourage you to read if you or anyone you know experiences that strange buzzing sound.