Our hearing organ, the spiral organ of Corti, runs through the inside of the cochlea in the inner ear. It is made up of thousands of sound-sensing cells called hair cells, which turn the information from sound waves (mechanical) into nerve signals (electrical) that are passed on to the brain. Each hair cell is sensitive to a different frequency (pitch) of sound, and they are arranged so that the frequency detected decreases as you move from the base of the cochlear spiral to the top. This allows our auditory system to separate complex sounds into their different frequencies - a principle called tonotopy. The ability to do this allows us to detect sounds that range from the low rumble of distant thunder to the high-pitched whistle of a steam train.
Many types of hearing loss are caused by damage to and loss of hair cells. The hair cells that detect and respond to high frequencies are the most vulnerable and are often lost first. Being able to repair and regenerate these cells would be a promising treatment for this kind of hearing loss.
Unfortunately, we know very little about the frequency-sensing properties of hair cells. We don’t know how hair cells learn to “hear” a specific frequency, or how they know where in the hearing organ they are or how they gain the necessary properties to carry out their functions. This means that we are currently struggling to make progress in developing regenerative treatments for people with damaged hair cells, the most vulnerable part of the inner ear.
In this project, Zoe will study in detail how hair cells develop and how they acquire the necessary properties to carry out their functions. To gain a better understanding of the properties of the hair cells, she will use a technique called live cell imaging. This will allow her to follow how hair cells change and function during their development.
Zoe’s project will allow us to gain a better understanding of how hair cells develop into sound-sensing cells that can turn sound information into electrical impulses that the brain can interpret. This will allow us to move forward in the field of regenerative treatments for hearing loss.