Action on Hearing Loss Logo
    Total results:
    Search
      Total results:

      Ageing: there’s much more to it than losing your hair (cells)

      As we grow older, we’re more likely to lose our hearing – so we’re funding research to tell us why. Carina Santos, from our Biomedical Research team, tells us more.

      By: Carina Santos | 17 January 2019

      Scientific advancements in the last few decades may have helped us live longer, but science is still not capable of stopping the train that is the ageing process. Like all systems in our body, our auditory system ages as we grow older and we gradually lose our hearing. More than 40% of people in the UK aged over 50 have hearing loss and this number rises to 71% in people over 70 – which shows that ageing is a major contributor to hearing loss.

      How does ageing lead to hearing loss?

      To be able to hear well, we need good communication between our ears and our brain. Hair cells, located in the inner ear, convert sound waves into electrical signals. These signals are then transmitted to the brain by auditory nerve cells. Damage to the hair cells, auditory nerve cells that connect the ear to the brain or brain lead to hearing loss. For a long time, researchers have thought that the main cause of age-related hearing loss was the loss of, or damage to, hair cells. However, recent studies have shown that there’s much more to it than this. We now know that losing hair cells is not the only cause of age-related hearing loss. Damage to the auditory nerve, and disruption of the connections between the hair cells and the auditory nerve cells, can also lead to hearing loss – and, in fact, may be the first step on that path.

      This year, we’ve partnered with the Dunhill Medical Trust to invest together in research into age-related hearing loss. Our Pauline Ashley Fellowship scheme supports the career development of the UK’s most talented new investigators towards becoming independent scientists, and helps increase the number of researchers working in hearing research. We’ve awarded one of our co-funded Pauline Ashley Fellowships to Dr Katie Smith, a skilled young researcher from the Ear Institute at University College London. Katie will investigate the processes involved in age-related hearing loss, focusing on the auditory nerve cells. 

      Auditory nerve cells and ageing

      The auditory nerve cells that connect the ear to the brain are wrapped by glial cells (or glia), which form an insulating layer around the nerve fibres. This insulating layer is interspersed with short gaps that form highly organised regions called microdomains. The structure and organisation of these microdomains is essential for the auditory nerve to transmit fast and precise electrical sound signals from the ear to the brain. Previous studies have shown that assaults to the ear (such as loud noises), can alter the organisation of these microdomains and lead to hearing loss.

      Katie’s project has two main aims. First, she will look at how microdomains form. She will study auditory nerve cells in mice, to determine when individual proteins first appear within different regions of the microdomains as they form. She will use a number of techniques, including high-resolution microscopy,  and measure electrical signals along the nerve cells, to study how the glial cells influence the development of microdomains. She will also study how the glial cells themselves change – in terms of both structure and what they do – as the nerve forms and matures.

      Secondly, Katie will look at the microdomains in great detail during the ageing process, to determine how they change over time. As part of this, she will find out whether specific protein components are lost that could contribute to age-related hearing loss, and if this happens before the disruption of communication between the ear and the brain.

      Understanding how the microdomains form in auditory nerve cells is the first step towards developing treatments that can restore a healthy organisation and structure of the microdomains – and, ultimately, restore hearing loss that’s due to getting older.

      Why is this work important?

      Age-related hearing loss can – and does – affect any one of us. Understanding the sequence of events in the ear and the brain (as well as in the nerve cells that connect the two), as we age, is crucial if we want to develop new ways of preventing the progressive loss of our hearing. Unlike birds, which can regenerate their hearing after it’s damaged, we have to depend on medical treatments to preserve or restore our hearing. By investing in research projects – and the scientists who are behind them – now, we hope that this will bring significant advances in the development of treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus.

      Find out more

      This research is also being supported by the National Institute for Health Research University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre.

      We depend on your donations so we can fund the best hearing and tinnitus research around the world. Donate today and help us continue our vital work into hearing treatments, so that people can live life to the full again.

      You can find out more about the research we’re funding in our biomedical research section.

      If you’re interested in finding out more about our research, sign up to receive our Soundbite e-newsletter. It’s a monthly email, filled with the latest news about hearing and tinnitus research.

      Recent Posts

      Could a malaria drug hold the key to treating Usher syndrome?

      Researchers in the US have found evidence from zebrafish that the anti-malarial drug artemisinin could help to prevent the hearing loss associated with Usher syndrome type 3A. Tracey Pollard, from our research team, tells us more.

      By: Tracey Pollard
      19 July 2019

      Preventing hereditary hearing loss using gene editing technology

      Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital in the US have used gene editing technology to prevent progressive hearing loss in mice with a genetic form of deafness which is also found in people (DFNA36). Tracey Pollard, from our research team, tells us more.

      By: Tracey Pollard
      19 July 2019

      Apple's new noise monitor

      Apple has long been investing in their tablets and phones to raise awareness of fitness. However, since the launch of their smartwatch, healthcare apps have become increasingly important and their latest app now includes hearing health to help protect hearing in noisy environments. Jesal Vishnuram, Technology Manager, tells us more.

      By: Jesal Vishnuram
      18 July 2019

      Protecting a lifeline in Parliament

      Over 700 of you have written to your MP, asking them to protect your local NHS audiology service. We held an event in Parliament on 26 June and MPs from constituencies across England dropped by to hear why hearing aids are a lifeline – and should be protected on the NHS.

      By: Jess McNulty
      28 June 2019

      Recent Posts

      Could a malaria drug hold the key to treating Usher syndrome?

      Researchers in the US have found evidence from zebrafish that the anti-malarial drug artemisinin could help to prevent the hearing loss associated with Usher syndrome type 3A. Tracey Pollard, from our research team, tells us more.

      By: Tracey Pollard
      19 July 2019

      Preventing hereditary hearing loss using gene editing technology

      Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital in the US have used gene editing technology to prevent progressive hearing loss in mice with a genetic form of deafness which is also found in people (DFNA36). Tracey Pollard, from our research team, tells us more.

      By: Tracey Pollard
      19 July 2019

      Apple's new noise monitor

      Apple has long been investing in their tablets and phones to raise awareness of fitness. However, since the launch of their smartwatch, healthcare apps have become increasingly important and their latest app now includes hearing health to help protect hearing in noisy environments. Jesal Vishnuram, Technology Manager, tells us more.

      By: Jesal Vishnuram
      18 July 2019

      Protecting a lifeline in Parliament

      Over 700 of you have written to your MP, asking them to protect your local NHS audiology service. We held an event in Parliament on 26 June and MPs from constituencies across England dropped by to hear why hearing aids are a lifeline – and should be protected on the NHS.

      By: Jess McNulty
      28 June 2019

      More like this

      We're really proud of everyone who's a part of Action on Hearing Loss, and hope you'll feel inspired to become a part of our community.​

      We campaign for changes that make life better for people who are confronting deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss.

      Our ears are our organs of hearing and balance. They have three parts: the outer, middle and inner ear.