As well as researchers working in hearing loss and related fields, attendees included representatives of funding bodies, publishers, and the pharmaceutical industry. The meeting showcases the broad range of hearing research, from basic to clinical, and gives researchers the opportunity to present their research to others in the field, to receive valuable feedback and advice that can strengthen their work, and to develop relationships and possible future collaborations with people working in a similar area. It’s also an opportunity for them to keep up to date with recent developments in hearing research from labs around the world.
The buzz around hidden hearing loss
During the conference, one area of focus was “hidden hearing loss”. It’s been known for some time that injury to the inner ear caused by loud sounds can lead to permanent hearing loss. This is because loud noise can damage and kill the sound-detecting sensory hair cells in the inner ear, and the nerves that send sound signals to the brain. However, scientists have also shown that after loud noise exposure (that causes a temporary, not a permanent, hearing loss), mice lose large numbers of the connections (called synapses) between the sound-sensing hair cells and the nerves. The loss of these connections isn’t detected by standard hearing tests, and so this damage remains hidden.
At this year’s conference, scientists presented their work to discover if noise causes hidden hearing loss in people. This is important because the loss of synapses could affect complex tasks such as hearing a conversation in a noisy environment. If hidden hearing loss significantly affects hearing health in people, then efforts can be focussed on developing ways to prevent or reverse this damage, and it may suggest that current safety guidelines on noise exposure need to be reconsidered.
As yet, researchers haven’t found a link between the level of noise exposure and hidden hearing loss. It’s difficult to estimate how much noise someone has been exposed to over their lifespan, and we do not have a good way to measure this, which can make interpreting the results of experiments tricky. Currently we use questionnaires, which ask people to think back over their lifespan about certain types of noise exposures (e.g. music gigs) that they have experienced. Researchers in Manchester and Nottingham are working together to develop a better way to measure lifetime noise exposure through structured interviews. This more flexible measure looks at a person’s history of different types of noise exposure across different stages of their life, and it also takes into account whether they have used hearing protection. This could help to give a more personalized, accurate and reliable estimate of lifetime noise exposure, so that the link between noise and hidden hearing loss can be better explored.
Developing new cochlear implants
During the course of the meeting there were also several presentations showcasing new and upcoming cochlear implant technology. Current cochlear implants use electrical pulses to activate the hearing nerve to enable deaf people to hear. However, the electrical pulses don’t stimulate the hearing nerve very precisely, meaning that sounds can often seem scrambled. This causes problems with hearing in noisy environments and understanding complex sounds like speech and music. This limits the quality of sound that cochlear implants can provide to deaf people.
At the conference, some exciting advances were discussed about the development of new light-based cochlear implants. These use light to activate the hearing nerve in a more focussed and precise way than electrical pulses. But for light-based implants to work, the hearing nerve cells first have to be able to respond to light. Researchers presented work showing that they can make the nerve cells in the inner ear respond to blue light by adding a new gene to the cell’s normal genes (this technique is called gene therapy). Other research groups spoke about using infrared light instead of blue light to activate the hearing nerve. The good thing about infrared light is that our hearing nerve cells already respond to this type of light, and so you don’t need to use gene therapy first. On the flip side, a lot of power is needed to make nerve cells respond to this light, which might make the inner ear heat up and damage it. As a solution, researchers showed how using light together with electrical pulses can reduce the amount of power needed to activate the nerve cells, which in turn lowers the amount of heat in the inner ear.
Bringing together researchers, companies, and funders at meetings like ARO should bring us closer to resolving these important issues and questions. From this, we could see a step-change in cochlear implant technology that could revolutionise the way that deaf people with a cochlear implant hear the world.
Supporting the next generation of hearing researchers
This year we supported 11 UK-based researchers, all at an early stage in their career, with travel bursaries to allow them to attend the conference and present their research. For researchers starting out on their careers, the ARO meeting provides a unique opportunity for them to discuss their work with leading experts, hear about cutting-edge research first-hand, and make connections with other researchers able to provide advice. I spoke to them about their experiences at the conference and what it meant to them to be able to attend. Here’s what they had to say:
“Attending and presenting my work at the ARO midwinter meeting was an extremely valuable experience. The insightful feedback I have gained from prominent researchers has had a positive impact on my research and exposure to the latest hearing loss research has been inspiring.” Benjamin Gurer
“As a clinician, this was the first time I had attended a purely academic conference. The trip would not have been possible without the assistance offered by the Action on Hearing Loss grant, and I am extremely grateful to the charity for the bursary.” Andrew Mowat
I also caught up with one of our Action on Hearing Loss-funded PhD students, Katherine Hardy, who said:
"Attending ARO is the most motivating and inspiring thing that I have done in my PhD. It is so refreshing to talk to people outside your lab about your research. It allows you to gain a different perspective that can spark new ideas or even collaborations, and to form connections with people from all around the world that could one day become your employer. Without opportunities like ARO, it would be harder to understand what life might look like after a PhD."
We look forward to finding out about where these new collaborations and research ideas have led to at the ARO conference next year!