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Hearing Aids & Roundworms

Let’s all take a quick moment to celebrate a big leap forward in access to hearing aids.

Recently, President Joe Biden announced that he had ordered the Food and Drug Administration to make hearing aids available over the counter—with no doctors’ prescription required.

The FDA estimates this could lower the average costs by as much as $3,000 per pair of hearing aids. A national drugstore chain has already announced it will make hearing aids available for as little as $799 (and we hope the costs continue to drop).

For something so necessary, so basic, and so important for the human experience—hearing!

Ear trumpet (source: Wikipedia)

We often take the basic human senses for granted, don’t we? Until we experience what’s it like have no sense of taste or smell (thanks, COVID) or when our eyes begin to lose their ability to focus near and far. Or when our touch sensors start to fade. As we get older, we lose nerves that perceive sensations such as pain, heat, cold, itching, and vibrations (according to Dr. David Linden; more here.)

Or when our hearing starts to go.

So here’s to cheaper hearing aids. And also to all the people working to make the technology smaller and smaller. We’ve come a long way from ear trumpets (17th and 18th centuries) to the first electronic hearing aids, which were constructed after the invention of the telephone and microphone in the 1870s and 1880s. The advent of transistors in the late 1940’s started the process of shrinking the size of hearing aids and today they work with digital chips.

Hats’ off to all the scientists who continue to work on this important medical need.

According to the National Institute on Aging, approximately one in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 suffer from hearing loss. (More information here.) And it’s not only a physical challenge—losing your ability to hear can put you at risk for developing anxiety and depression. There’s a psychological impact to hearing loss that can’t be overlooked.

The anatomy of the entire human hearing structures are, of course, fascinating as well. And scientists are still working on one of the longstanding mysteries about human hearing.

Didn’t you say there would also be roundworms in this column?

Yes, we did.

In fact, lots of them. And they are related to the issue of hearing.

Scientists raised 60 million roundworms, Caenorhabditis elegans roundworms, which use a highly similar protein complex to what’s found in the human ear, to solve this long-standing mystery. Why roundworms? Because humans don’t produce enough in their inner ears to give scientists the necessary quantity to work with.

Scientists have known that the protein plays a crucial role in hearing but the “underlying molecular architecture” of the protein was still unknown, according to Eric Gouaux, a senior biochemist with the Oregon Health and Science University.

Ossicles, the tiniest bones in the human body, move when sound waves reach the eardrum (tympanic membrane). The cochlear is struck by the ossicles. The cochlear then brushes membranes with stereocilia, tiny finger-like hairs.

As the hairs move, the TMC1 complex-created ion channels embedded in these stereocilia open and close, sending electrical signals following the auditory nerve to the brain where they are translated into sound.

Knowing the protein’s “molecular architecture,” thanks to all those roundworms, means that scientists might one day be able to create hearing impairment treatments that go after underlying issues.

To which we say, wow.

Let the whole world hear!






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