These days, scientists are finding a gene for everything. There’s a happy gene, a sad gene, a baldness gene, a Tyrannosaurus rex gene (okay, that one’s been around for a while), a gene for blue eyes, and a gene for brown eyes. Nothing happens without genes!
I mean… there shouldn’t be anything very shocking about that. We know that our genetics influences many physical characteristics. But humans–generally–have approximately 75,000,000 strands of DNA with over 8,000,000,000 base pairs.
That can make finding specific genes quite difficult. While we’ve known for some time that hearing loss can run in families, finding the specific genes is more complicated. Sure, maybe there’s a gene for hearing loss–but which of those 75,000,000 is it? Research might actually be shedding some light on that–and with that insight comes the potential for new hearing loss treatments and therapies. And, you know, cool science.
Discovering the hearing loss gene… in mice
So, how did researchers go about finding out what genes might be linked to hearing loss? Well, they tested mice. Once the experiments were conducted, researchers discovered 38 separate genes in mice that could be connected with hearing loss. Of those 38 genes, approximately 11 were also found in humans.
What role does genetics play in hearing loss?
So, uh, hurray? What does this mean for people (not mice)? Well, let’s look at an example:
Jenny is starting to feel her age; her knees ache a bit more than they used to, her back is acting up, and her hair is thinning ever so slightly. She’s also been turning up the volume on her TV in order to hear all of the nuanced dialogue on Grey’s Anatomy. Now, Jenny’s experience is pretty typical–especially when it comes to hearing loss.
And what if Jenny had a twin sister? Let’s name her Anna. Would we expect Anna to exhibit the same signs of hearing loss? Maybe! In theory, if Anna had the same hearing loss-causing genes as Jenny, she would certainly be at risk. Predisposition is not predestination. Knowing their risks, though, would help them protect themselves.
What if they discovered otosclerosis was genetic (as many researchers suspect)? If Jenny and Anna knew they had genes that predisposed them to otosclerosis, they might use that information to make different decisions, such as avoiding hormonal therapy, as some research suggests a connection between hormones and the increased likelihood of otosclerosis. Scientists are also working on what “turns on” specific genes to help people prevent conditions they may be predisposed to. This science is evolving, and new discoveries are made every day. But knowing your risks helps you make better decisions in your overall care and to take advantage of new discoveries when they become available.
Before you get your genes tested…
As with any new research, there are a few caveats:
- The link between these particular genes and their effect on humans still isn’t entirely well understood. (As they say, correlation is not causation.)
- In most cases, genetic predisposition is not always going to lead to the development of symptoms.
- Hearing loss is caused by a wide confluence of factors, but the most prominent seems to be loud, damaging noises (these noises don’t even really have to be all that loud).
- Whether you’re predisposed to hearing loss risk or not, protecting your ears is one of the most effective ways to prevent hearing loss.
This is not to say that the research performed at King’s College London isn’t important. Indeed, knowing the genetic markers for hearing loss can lead to better gene therapies and treatments. And knowing you have a genetic predisposition for hearing loss might make you a little more likely to protect your hearing.
And that’s really what it all comes back to: protecting your hearing. Whether you have that genetic predisposition or not, damaging noise could lead to hearing loss. So protecting your hearing becomes a paramount concern either way.
Part of the reason why research is so important is that, currently, there is no cure for certain types of hearing loss. And, what’s worse, the number of people who suffer from hearing loss is continuing to grow at an alarming rate.
Research into the causes of and treatments for hearing loss continues to be vital–and every new piece of information collected helps bring us a little bit closer to new cures and treatments. (Also, again, cool science.)