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      Understanding more about hearing loss - new research projects

      Our most recent intake of PhD students began their projects in October, and we featured two of the new projects then. Tracey Pollard, from our Biomedical Research team, tells us about the remaining projects and students we’re funding this year.

      By: Tracey Pollard | 11 December 2017

      We’ve supported some of the very best students in the UK to study for their PhD in hearing, deafness and tinnitus research since 2001. So far, over 30 students have obtained their PhD with our support – and most of them are still working in hearing research, continuing to contribute to the field. We’re also supporting many more towards their PhD, including these new students.

      Here are the projects that our three remaining new PhD students will be undertaking:

      Research to understand more about otosclerosis

      Otosclerosis affects one of the three tiny bones, or ossicles, in the middle ear – this bone, the stapes bone, overgrows and becomes fixed in place. Hearing relies upon these three bones being able to move freely to pass information about sounds from the outside world into the inner ear – so if one becomes fixed in place, it causes hearing loss. Otosclerosis is relatively common, affecting around 1 in 200 people, and people with otosclerosis typically start to lose their hearing in their 20s. Currently, otosclerosis is treated with hearing aids, or through surgery to replace the damaged ossicle with a prosthetic device – and while these approaches improve hearing in most people, they do not restore natural hearing. In this project, Nadhrah Ali, working in Professor Abigail Tucker’s lab, at King’s College London, will study the development of the stapes bone and try to understand more about the biological processes that cause it to become fixed in place. The information from this project will increase what we know about otosclerosis and the biological processes involved. This will provide knowledge to help researchers to develop drugs that can target these processes and prevent or reverse them, to effectively treat otosclerosis.

      Improving diagnosis of auditory processing disorder

      Auditory processing disorder (APD) is a hearing or listening problem caused by the brain not being able to make sense of sounds. A person with APD will have normal hearing when tested using standard tests, but will have problems understanding and making sense of sounds, especially complicated and fast-changing sounds like speech. Children with APD may have problems concentrating, understanding things they're told or understanding speech in the presence of other sounds, for example in a noisy classroom. Their reading and spelling abilities may also be affected. There are suspicions that APD leads to learning difficulties for language and literacy, and hence to poor school performance. Unfortunately, it is a very poorly understood condition, with no general consensus of what it really is, or how to diagnose or treat it.

      Children with APD may struggle to separate out multiple sound sources from each other, especially when they are close together, and this, at least in part, may underlie their problems. Imagine a child sitting in a classroom, trying to listen to the teacher at the front of the classroom while behind them, two other children are having a conversation. Most children would find the teacher easier to follow in that situation, as the two sound sources are separated from each other, compared to if the two children talking were nearer to the teacher. However, it seems that some children with APD would find the two situations equally difficult, not getting any help from the spatial separation of the sound sources to split them from each other. Katharina Zenke, working in Professor Stuart Rosen’s lab at UCL, will investigate whether this ‘spatial listening ability’ can be tested in a virtual environment that mimics a real room. If so, it could ultimately lead to the development of a diagnostic test that can be used in clinics to identify children with APD, and ensure they get the help they need.

      Finding out more about the inner ear

      While we know about many genes and proteins that are involved in hearing and hearing loss, there’s still a lot we don’t know. There is a protein produced at high levels in the inner ear, called beta-dystroglycan, but its role in hearing is unclear. In other parts of the body, it is involved in how a cell communicates with its outside world, forming a link between the inside of the cell and its outside environment. It’s possible that it does the same in the inner ear, and it could be involved in many aspects of hearing, from how the inner ear develops, to how it maintains itself throughout life, or it could be involved in the processes that turn sound vibrations into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. Adam Carlton will work in Professor Steve Winder’s lab, at the University of Sheffield, to find out more about beta-dystroglycan and the role it plays in hearing and hearing loss. This knowledge could lead to the development of treatments for noise-induced or age-related hearing loss.   

      Through our PhD studentship scheme, we’re increasing the number of researchers dedicated to working in hearing research in the UK, and generating valuable research findings that move us closer to better treatments for hearing loss and tinnitus.

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