For people with disabling hearing loss, numbering approximately 360 million worldwide, hearing aids are the best source of treatment.
Hearing aid companies are continually innovating to provide hearing devices
and instruments that help to amplify, attune and distinguish sounds that are more and more natural, and more adaptable to different hearing environments. Hearing aids are becoming more customizable and intuitive
, and have come a long way towards eliminating the unwanted noise and feedback associated with simple amplification.
Smartphone apps allow the hearing aid user to use their phone to change settings, providing an extra microphone in a noise place. These can apps also learn and save location-based settings to adjust to the acoustics of noisy environments and unwanted background sound. They even allow wearers to stream phone calls and music directly to their hearing aids!
"2016 is the year of the ear"
While hearing aids have improved the lives of millions of people with hearing loss, there may be even better solutions may be on the horizon. The hearing field has made enormous strides over the last several decades in understanding the biology of the inner ear and the causes of hearing loss and tinnitus. “I say 2016 is the year of the ear,” says Dave Fabry, an audiologist and a spokesperson for the Better Hearing Institute. “It’s finally on the radar and getting more attention”.
A batch of young biotech companies has entered the hearing field to develop medicines and gene therapies with the goal of actually restoring hearing, rather than amplifying sound. Boston-based Third Rock Ventures has launched a new startup called Decibel; Eli Lilly has invested in a Dutch company called Audion; Novartis has joined with GenVen, for testing gene therapies, and others such as Otonomy, Autifony, Auris, and Frequency Therapies are developing and testing therapies with a pharmaceutical approach. While it may be five years before a product or therapy is available to the general public, the activity is generating optimism and some trials are underway.
While some researchers are working towards full regeneration of hearing mechanisms, others have the nearer-term goal of preventing permanent damage in the first place. Switzerland-based Auris is conducting clinical trials on a drug to treat sudden hearing loss within three days of onset, utilizing a gel which is injected into the middle ear, where it helps to generate recovery of the damaged cells.
North Carolina-based Fennec Pharmaceuticals have trials underway to protect hair cells from oxidative stress during chemotherapy, therapy with a certain class of antibiotics
, and for people at risk of consistent exposure to loud noises
, all of which can result in hearing loss.
The small hair cells in the inner ear convert sound vibrations into electrical signals that travel to the brain via the auditory nerve. When these hairs and the nerve cells are damaged – by injury, disease, aging, or genetics – hearing loss can occur, and up until now this was considered irreversible.
For people whose hearing loss is already ongoing, researchers are focusing on repairing damaged or deficient hail cells. Gene therapy research has been shown to restore hearing in mice that are deficient in a particular gene, Tmc1, for example.
Others are working to completely rebuild hair cells. It has been discovered that adult birds can regrow their inner-ear cells following damage. Somehow, this regenerative ability has been lost in mammals. A drug is being developed to inhibit the mechanism which appears to prevent regeneration of the hair cells, and has been found in trials to restore hearing to adult mice whose hearing had been damaged by loud noise.
Still other research is focused on restoring the hair-cell to nerve cell connection, called the synapse, following damage resulting in hearing loss.
Stem cell therapy is thought of as the final frontier in the restoration of hearing. Researchers hope to be able to develop stem cell therapies that not only will regenerate hearing structures in the recently deafened, but theoretically could establish hearing for people who never developed proper inner-ear structure, or whose cells are completed degenerated.
It may be years before these promising therapies will be available, but it is good to know that they are diligently seeking solutions and treatments with a pluralistic approach.
At the end of the day, there will not be just one treatment, but different treatments and alternatives that will be suitable for different people. Someday soon, hearing restoration will be within our grasp.
But in the meantime – the prescription of hearing aids
remains the best treatment to hearing loss! There’s no reason to live with hearing loss. If you believe you, or someone you love, is experiencing hearing loss, contact us at Puget Sound Hearing
for a consultation!