4 Ways Scientists Are Trying to Cure Hearing Loss

Scientist researching hearing loss.

As each new generation of devices produces clearer sounds and smarter features, hearing aids and cochlear implants are revolutionizing how we think about hearing loss treatments. But no matter how far hearing devices push the treatment envelope, they will never really cure hearing loss.

That’s no fault of the hearing aid, of course. That’s not what a hearing is trying to do. There is no cure for many forms of hearing loss, so hearing aids and other devices are only ever intended to help people hear and maintain their overall quality of life. It’s an approach that’s proven incredibly successful over the years. It’s also an approach that might get a little assistance in the near future, as scientists get closer and closer to finding a cure for hearing loss.

Searching for a cure for hearing loss

Just because there isn’t a cure today doesn’t mean there won’t be a cure tomorrow. Scientists are currently pursuing several promising leads, each of which might contribute to a cure for certain types of hearing loss. Some of the most promising avenues of research include:

1. Gene therapy

We’re used to thinking of a “cure” as a specific type of pill you swallow or an injection that a doctor may give you–an antibiotic or antiviral. But there’s a new category of cure known as “gene-editing therapy.” This type of approach has proven to have significant potential in treating certain types of sensorineural hearing loss.

According to the most recent research, scientists have identified some specific genes that, in children, can lead to hearing loss later in life. The idea is that by replacing those genes with more ones that are unlikely to cause hearing loss, children with hearing disorders will be able to hear without the assistance of a cochlear implant. Theoretically, gene therapy prevents future damage. and those treated can hear normally.

2. Micronutrient injections

Another approach scientists are taking is an injection of something called a micronutrient. The idea is that by injecting the ears with something called d-methionine, this treatment will effectively prevent damage caused by free radicals. With no free radicals in there causing damage, your ears would be better protected from loud noises (the current research is observing those engaged in M-16 weapons training–certainly a loud environment).

Research on this method is currently ongoing–so results aren’t ready for the public just yet. Which means we’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach to this possible cure.

3. Regenerating hairs

Some hearing loss is related to damage to the stereocilia (the tiny hairs in your ear that detect changes in air movements and help your brain translate vibrations into sounds). When stereocilia are damaged in humans, they are unable to repair themselves.

So, hearing loss caused by deteriorated stereocilia is permanent. What makes this interesting is that humans are one of the few mammals that don’t regenerate these hairs. That’s why scientists are looking into the genetics of our mammalian cousins to see if they can replicate the “repair process” and create new hearing loss treatments.

4. Drug therapies

Regeneration isn’t just a theory. There are several potent new drug therapies that might be able to accomplish just this kind of regenerative approach. They all have very complicated names, of course (these drug therapies haven’t necessarily gone through the marketing department yet), but the general idea is this: you take a pill, and the pill helps promote the growth of stereocilia in your ears.

There are a couple of variations to this approach that have shown promise, and researchers in the field are confident that–one day–these drug therapies will become an effective option. They just aren’t all that sure of when that will be. (This article offers more information on this research.)

Don’t underestimate your hearing aid

The excitement bound up in these possible new miracle cures is understandable. A cure for hearing loss could change the entire treatment dynamic for those with permanent, sensorineural hearing damage.

But it’s tough to tell exactly when that bold, new day will come. And in the meantime, we would be remiss in ignoring what have become proven treatments. When it comes to sensorineural hearing loss, that means two things: hearing aids and hearing protection.

The benefits of hearing aids

Until there is a cure, hearing aids are essential once you know you’re dealing with hearing loss. Hearing aids can help slow cognitive decline. So until those cures are available, a hearing aid will likely remain your best option to preserve your hearing and treat your hearing loss.

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