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Medical Rounds

One Hairy Problem?

Conventional wisdom has long blamed age-related hearing loss almost entirely on the death of sensory hair cells in the inner ear. However, recent work by otolaryngology researcher Paul Fuchs and graduate student Stephen Zachary suggests another story. Their studies in mice have verified an increased number of connections between certain hair cells and neurons in the inner ear of aging mice. Because these connections normally tamp down hearing when an animal is exposed to high volumes, the scientists think these new connections could also be contributing to age-related hearing loss in these animals, and possibly in humans.

“These nerve cell connections seem to be reverting back to the way they worked during early development before the animals’ sense of hearing was operating,” says Fuchs. “We don’t know why the new connections form, but it might be as simple as a lack of competition for space once the outgoing nerve cells have retracted.”

If the same phenomenon is occurring in human ears, Fuchs and his team say there may be ways of preventing the incoming neurons from forming new connections with inner hair cells, a technique that could help maintain normal hearing through old age.