For many years it has been assumed that the most common form of hearing loss is irreversible. Those who experience hearing loss in advanced years usually have experienced damage to the sensitive hair-like structures of the inner ear. Once these hairs have been damaged, it was traditionally believed that the damage was permanent. However, recent research has demonstrated a striking new possibility! A few therapies are in clinical trials to determine if they can be applied to those who have damaged these sensitive hairs. Three possibilities have presented themselves: drug-based therapies, stem-cell therapies, and gene therapy. Remarkable developments have taken place in the last of these treatment possibilities. Let’s take a look at the current research, treatment possibilities, and other options for hearing assistance.
GENE THERAPY RESEARCH
Current research with mice has to do with a particular form of hereditary deafness called DFNB9. This genetic condition occurs due to a mutation in the OTOF gene and a deficiency of the protein Otoferlin. In order to determine if treatment can reverse this form of deafness, mice have first been genetically modified to simulate the DFNB9 form of deafness. Researchers remarkably have inserted a virus into these mice that carries a perfect “package” of the OTOF gene. This virus attaches itself to the cochlea of the inner ear and reintroduces the essential Otoferlin protein to restore the tiny hair-like structures.
APPLICATIONS TO HUMAN HEARIN
For now, the gene therapy has had limited success among mice, but a few barriers to hearing treatment in humans remain. The virus that is used as a carrier of the therapeutic gene is currently too small to attach to the larger structures of the human cochlea, but researchers are optimistic that applications to larger contexts will present themselves. Another challenge has to do with the timing of gene therapy introduction in mice. These therapies are currently introduced into mice before their cochlea have fully formed. The next wave of treatment will need to address the fully formed cochlea of human ears that have already matured and begun to deteriorate.
OTHER POSSIBILITIES FOR HEARING TREATMENT
These developments in gene therapy are truly remarkable. It is hard to believe that in a relatively short time researchers have been able to devise a strategy that might be able to restore human hearing. This restoration was formerly thought to be impossible! However, treatment has a long way to go before it will be successful in adult humans, particularly those older people who have experienced hearing deterioration due to the lifelong inundation of sound into the ears. Although this treatment is not yet fully developed, another opportunity for treatment is readily available on the market right away: hearing aids.
Hearing aids are a remarkably effective way to restore hearing ability among those who have experienced loss. Although hearing aids are not fully equipped to bring back hearing in all cases, many people find that conversation is easier and that noise floors can be reduced. Particularly for those who have generalized hearing loss, the overall volume of hearing can be restored for many patients. Of course, hearing aids are not fully effective for those who have profound hearing loss or total deafness, but they can be an excellent way to assist those who struggle to hear in public settings or at social events. In addition to the benefits of hearing aids for hearing itself, hearing assistance has other benefits for physical health, mental wellbeing, social connection, and even cognition in many cases.
If you or someone you love has degenerative hearing loss, the first line of recourse is to seek a hearing test with a licensed hearing health professional. After a detailed consultation about the individual features of lifestyle and hearing needs, this professional can administer a test to determine the precise nature of hearing loss. With this information in hand, your professional can recommend a range of hearing aids that are suited to your individual needs. With some training and assistance with getting used to the aids, you or your loved one may find a remarkable change in hearing ability. Until gene therapy or other treatments have been tested and are available to adults, hearing aids may be the best possibility for restored hearing ability when you need it most.