Deafness due to noise exposure is apparently due in part to destruction of specific forms of synapses linking hair cells and nerve cells. Researchers are here manipulating cells in search of ways to boost the regrowth of these synapses:
NT3 is crucial to the body's ability to form and maintain connections between hair cells and nerve cells, the researchers demonstrate. This special type of connection, called a ribbon synapse, allows extra-rapid communication of signals that travel back and forth across tiny gaps between the two types of cells. "It has become apparent that hearing loss due to damaged ribbon synapses is a very common and challenging problem, whether it's due to noise or normal aging. We began this work 15 years ago to answer very basic questions about the inner ear, and now we have been able to restore hearing after partial deafening with noise, a common problem for people. It's very exciting."
After determining that inner ear supporting cells supply NT3, the team turned to a technique called conditional gene recombination to see what would happen if they boosted NT3 production by the supporting cells. The approach allows scientists to activate genes in specific cells, by giving a dose of a drug that triggers the cell to "read" extra copies of a gene that had been inserted into them. For this research, the scientists activated the extra NT3 genes only into the inner ear's supporting cells.
The genes didn't turn on until the scientists wanted them to - either before or after they exposed the mice to loud noises. The scientists turned on the NT3 genes by giving a dose of the drug tamoxifen, which triggered the supporting cells to make more of the protein. Before and after this step, they tested the mice's hearing using an approach called auditory brainstem response - the same test used on humans. The result: the mice with extra NT3 regained their hearing over a period of two weeks, and were able to hear much better than mice without the extra NT3 production.