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      Ageing and hearing loss: what’s sex got to do with it?

      As we grow older, any one of us can lose our hearing. So why are men more at risk than women? We’ve supported the career development of Dr Lisa Nolan, who has now set off on her own line of research, to find out why.

      By: Dr Carly Anderson | 16 November 2018

      By investing in research projects, and the scientists who are behind them, we hope to advance the development of treatments and ways to prevent hearing loss. Our Pauline Ashley Fellowship scheme supports the early-career development of the UK’s most talented researchers. Dr Lisa Nolan, at the UCL Ear Institute, was awarded one of our Pauline Ashley Fellowships, which ended this year.

      We are thrilled that, with the help of our Pauline Ashley award, Dr Nolan has attracted further funding from King’s College London, enabling her to lead her own programme of research into age-related hearing loss.

      Sex differences in age-related hearing loss

      Both genetic and environmental factors (like exposure to loud noise) play a role in age-related hearing loss and as we grow older, most of us will gradually lose our hearing. However, in men, age-related hearing loss is more common, more severe, and occurs earlier in life compared to women – even when environmental factors aren’t at play. So, why this difference between the sexes?

      There is evidence that estrogen, the female sex hormone, may protect against ageing, and possibly hearing loss. The hormone estrogen works by docking on to special receptor molecules found within or on the cell surface. This interaction between estrogen and the receptor molecules triggers molecular pathways, which help to keep the cells working properly. In the inner ear, loss of these estrogen receptors increases the risk of noise damage to the cochlea, and can result in profound deafness.

      Lisa Nolan
      Dr Lisa Nolan working in the lab at the UCL Ear Institute

      Dr Nolan’s earlier research, carried out in Dr Sally Dawson’s Lab at the UCL Ear Institute, has shown that another molecule called ESRRG (estrogen-related receptor gamma) that is very similar to these estrogen receptors may be important in protecting women from age-related hearing loss.

      Through our Pauline Ashley Fellowship, we funded Dr Nolan to perform a pilot study to investigate how the ESRRG molecule acts in the inner ear to maintain hearing. Dr Nolan is currently finishing up this research and preparing the findings that we’ll share with you when available – watch this space.

      “Age-related hearing loss can – and does – affect any one of us.” Dr Nolan said: “Understanding and treating age-related hearing loss is a major challenge in hearing research. To tackle this issue, I think we need to put more emphasis on understanding the fundamental differences between men and women in susceptibility to this disease, and first understand why hearing is maintained into older age more readily in women compared to men.” This knowledge is essential in our drive to develop treatments to treat and prevent age-related hearing loss.

      The future’s looking bright

      Dr Nolan has now been awarded a prestigious King’s College London Prize Fellowship. This is a 2-year award that will enable Dr Nolan to establish her own, independent research programme, and to build her own team. Dr Nolan will be making the move from the UCL Ear Institute to set up her own lab at King’s College London in January 2019.

      Dr Nolan said, “Without this funding from Action on Hearing Loss, I would not have been able to conduct this research that has enabled me to initiate an independent programme of work. I’m delighted to now be in a position to drive forward my own research vision in my pursuit to advance the field of age-related hearing loss”.

      Dr Nolan is an excellent example of how our Pauline Ashley Fellowships can help early-career researchers to establish themselves independently in the hearing research field, and increase the number of scientists working towards treatments for hearing loss. We are excited to follow the scientific developments that Dr Nolan and her team will make, and to continue to support the career development of the UK’s most talented new investigators in hearing research.

      Find out more

      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 newsletter. It’s a monthly email, filled with the latest news about hearing and tinnitus research.

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