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      Inspiring the scientists of the future

      Our Summer Studentship scheme funds undergraduate students to gain experience in renowned hearing research labs across the UK. Research Programme Officer Carly Anderson tells us about the new summer projects starting this month.

      By: Dr Carly Anderson | 31 July 2017

      Through our Summer Studentship scheme, we enable undergraduate students to get a taster of what it’s like to work on hearing research in leading UK labs. By funding them to complete a small research project for up to 8 weeks over the summer, we hope to inspire the most talented students to go on to consider a PhD in hearing research. This will ultimately increase the number of scientists working on hearing research and ultimately benefit people with hearing loss or tinnitus.

      This year, we’ve awarded 9 Summer Studentships to students at universities across the UK, including London, Southampton, Oxford, Nottingham and Manchester. Here are a few of the projects that we’re supporting.

      Developing a new coating for cochlear implants

      Cochlear implants restore hearing by electrically stimulating the hearing nerve, which then carries electrical sound signals to the brain. To do this, a platinum electrode array is surgically inserted into the cochlea (inner ear). The electrode array has to be in direct contact with the hearing nerve in order for electrical sound signals to be carried to the brain. However, when the electrode array is implanted, scar tissue can form which prevents good contact between the electrodes and the hearing nerve. This reduces how well the cochlear implant works, and therefore how much a person can hear.

      In this project, the student will work alongside researchers at Imperial College London to help develop a new ‘hydrogel’ (a gel that contains water) coating for the electrode array. This soft and degradable material might be able to reduce scar tissue, and can also be loaded with nerve cells. These nerve cells can then grow and form long-term connections between the electrode array and the hearing nerve. The student will examine whether this hydrogel material can support the survival and growth of nerve cells and how this affects the performance of the electrode array. Development of this material could lead to the next generation of improved cochlear implants.

      Measuring social isolation in adults with hearing loss

      Hearing loss can make it difficult for people to take part in many important social situations, including family life, friendships, community life, employment, and education. This can lead to social isolation. Devices like hearing aids can help to improve a person’s hearing and help them to become more involved in social situations. Audiology clinics normally measure the benefits that hearing aids provide to people by using questionnaires. However, it is especially hard to find a high-quality questionnaire that can measure social isolation in people with hearing loss in a short and simple way.

      Researchers in Nottingham are developing a new social isolation questionnaire (the Social Isolation Measure) that is designed to be quick and easy to use, consisting of only five questions. During the summer placement, the student will work with these researchers to assess the quality of this short questionnaire. They will ask 100 adults with hearing loss to fill out an online survey. This survey will include the new social isolation questionnaire and three questionnaires that the researchers have used in their past research. If the results show it is a high-quality questionnaire, then it could be used to gather accurate and reliable information for clinical research as well as in audiology clinics, about whether the healthcare they provide is actually reducing social isolation in people with hearing loss.

      Understanding the effect of female sex hormones on tinnitus

      Tinnitus can cause tension, frustration, loss of concentration, sleep disturbance and depression. Research has suggested that there may be a link between the perception of tinnitus and female sex hormones, but the exact relationship is not understood. Fluctuation of female hormones may cause changes in sensitivity to sounds and the perception of tinnitus. This project will investigate this link by studying tinnitus in women who use hormonal contraception. Different types of hormonal contraception contain different levels of ethinyloestradiol (an estrogen hormone) and could therefore have different effects on hearing and tinnitus.
      In this project, the student will conduct a series of standard audiological and psychological tests with women who use a range of hormonal contraception. The researchers, based in Manchester, expect that higher levels of oestrogen will have a protective effect on hearing, and so will be linked to less severe tinnitus and better hearing. The outcomes of this research will have implications for future tinnitus interventions and may, in the future, lead to the development of hormonal therapies for women suffering from severe tinnitus.

      Other Summer Studentship projects

      We’re also funding students to understand how hearing loss in one ear affects a person’s ability to hear where sounds are coming from, and to explore the link between how much adults with age-related hearing loss can hear and how difficult they feel it is to hear. Other students will investigate if a particular protein is involved in communication between cells within the hearing nerve, and whether a drug can help reconnect the sensory hair cells to the hearing nerve. Finally, we’re funding students to explore parents’ preferences for how care is provided after their child receives a cochlear implant, and to develop a model of hearing in the fruit fly.

      All of the students will report back to us on their time spent in the lab and we will award a prize to the winner of the best report in the Autumn. This will be announced in our Soundbite e-newsletter.

      We wish all our students the very best of luck with their summer studentship projects and hope they enjoy their time spent in the lab.

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

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