In the United States, approximately forty-eight million (twenty percent) of men and women suffer some degree of hearing loss, as it is the third most common physical condition after arthritis and heart disease. While it is most often associated with the population sixty-five and
older, hearing loss effects all ages, as thirty school children per out one-thousand are afflicted in some varying degree. An individual is able to hear sound involving the ear’s main structures. In age-related hearing loss, one or more of these structures is damaged: the external ear canal, the middle ear, and the inner ear. External ear canal impairment is related exclusively to conducive hearing loss. The middle ear, which is separated from the ear canal by the eardrum may be caused by sensorineural hearing loss. Lastly, the inner ear, which contains the cochlea, the main sensory organ of hearing. When the vibrations from the middle ear enter the cochlea it causes the fluid to move and the sensory hair cells pick up this movement. In response to the movement of the fluid the hair cells send an electrical signal up the auditory nerve to the brain where it’s recognized as sound.
Now, how do these different internal departments of the human ear gradually induce hearing loss? While we get older, some may develop presbycusis, which causes the tiny hair-like cells in the cochlea to deteriorate over time. Clarity of sound decreases, as the hairs are unable to vibrate as effectively in response to sound. Recently, otolaryngologists have discovered new evidence that human hearing loss relates to a certain genetic mutations. A study at the University of Melbourne revealed “a novel genetic mutation was first identified in 2010 as causing hearing loss in humans… now discovered that this mutation induces malfunction of an inhibitor of an enzyme commonly found in our body that destroys proteins – known scientifically as SERPINB6. Individuals who lacked both copies of this “good gene” were shown to have lost their hearing by twenty years of age.
Although this discovery is changing the way scientists previously viewed hearing loss, the answer to why this mutation, SERPINB6, is a catalysts for such loss, is inconclusive. However, this mutative gene has created a revelation for many: it is now not unusual to show gradual signs of hearing loss under the age of sixty years.
To better understand the effects of the mutant gene, mice were used in order to imitate the condition from youth to adulthood. At only three weeks of age, mice with SERPINB6 had begun to lose hearing – three weeks is equivalent to pubescent or teenage years in humans. And as we could have predicted, the mice continued to show a decrease in hearing ability, much the same as humans. Researchers examined the mice’s inner ear, which revealed the cells responsible for interpreting sound (sensory hair cells) had died.
Fortunately, this new discovery of a mutant gene in human sensory cells has created new attention to better understand the case of those who are effected by the condition.