Hearing loss is a growing problem around the world. At present, it's estimated that 360 million people suffer from a noticeable degree of hearing loss. Between the aging population and the proliferation of electronic devices that can inflict noise-induced hearing loss, that number is expected to grow dramatically in the next ten to twenty years.
Currently, hearing loss sufferers only have a few solutions for dealing with the problem, and none of them are 100% effective. For people who lost their hearing later in life, due to illness, noise pollution or natural auditory deterioration, assistive devices such as hearing aids can help recover some auditory ability. But these devices can be cumbersome to wear, they can have trouble with certain frequencies, or they may not amplify sound clearly enough to be helpful.
Conversely, people who were born with hereditary hearing loss sometimes choose to get cochlear implants. These devices are surgically installed and relay sound information to the brain, but the sounds aren't always translated sharply and the devices themselves can pose a health risk.
There must be a better way to deal with hearing loss, and scientists around the globe are scrambling to come up with new solutions.
The Stem Cell Approach
Our ability to manipulate stem cells has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, and numerous research teams are using this approach in the battle against hearing loss. Although the specific methods may vary, the general approach is to use stem cells to regenerate damaged or destroyed cells in the inner ear. If successful, this technique could be extremely useful in combating noise-induced hearing loss, for example, which typically occurs when the small, hair-like cells in the inner ear break down and stop delivering auditory information to the brain. Unfortunately, however, stem cell regeneration probably won't be very effective for people who were born deaf.
Current hearing assistive devices typically involve enhancing or rerouting auditory stimuli so that the brain can understand them. Increasingly though, several researchers are exploring methods that rely on the body's other senses in order to relay sound information. For example, a group of researchers at a start-up company called Neosensory is working on a way to map sound information onto the skin and, through a device worn underneath clothing, using touch sensations to transmit auditory information to the brain. Similarly, a team at University Medical Center Göttingen in Germany is attempting to turn auditory signals into flashes of light that can be interpreted by genetically altered neurons then delivered to the hearing centers in the brain.
There is no way to tell what the next big solution to hearing loss will be. But with the number of sufferers rising faster than ever and thousands of scientists worldwide searching for an answer, there is little doubt that a new method for dealing with hearing loss is on the horizon.
If you or someone you know would like to learn more about hearing loss and how to treat it, please feel free to schedule a consultation or contact one of our representatives today!