Hearing Loss and The Zebrafish

Until fairly recently, there have not been many solutions for those that lose their hearing due to problems in the inner ear. These patients, usually over the age of 65, can be given hearing devices, but the damage can not really be reversed or repaired. Yet. Interestingly enough, recent studies of the zebrafish species have revealed new findings about hearing loss. This research could lead to a promising future for the prevention of hearing damage in humans.

Specifically, scientists have been focusing on the loss and regeneration of hair cells. These hair cells, when damaged, are what causes hearing loss in many humans. That damage can be brought on by certain medications, repeated exposure to loud noise, chemotherapy, or even just a natural decline over time through age. And once these hair cells are damaged or lost, they can’t come back. This often results in hearing loss, and in some cases, deafness. When it comes to the zebrafish, however- that’s a different story.

The zebrafish, along with many other animals, are actually able to regenerate those hair cells. The difference is that these hair cells are not used for hearing, and grow on the side of the fish’s body. They instead allow the fish to perceive each other while moving in the water. Sound waves are not involved- only real waves. The hair cells are surrounded by support cells that can divide and transform, turning into hair cells when needed. The study of this system allows researchers to closely examine how this process relates to hearing loss in humans, as well as how we can possiby protect our own hair cells from damage in the future.

Scientists have also been studying the zebrafish bone structure- specifically, their malformed jaws, as well as the three tiny bones in their middle ear that produce vibrations. There has been a link between the two structures that show genetic mutations in the fish have resulted in conductive hearing loss. When applied to other animals, a similar result was found. This allows scientists to make the connection between genetic changes in humans and hearing loss and gives them something to look for earlier in a human’s life to prevent any further hearing loss.

Because of these fish and the scientists researching them, the future of hearing loss prevention is bright. The study has already helped those with Alagille syndrome, a genetic condition that we now know can result in early conductive hearing loss. And, hopefully, more information on the regeneration of hair cells in animals could lead to any number of new studies and solutions. If you believe you may have experienced something that could have damaged your hair cells, or you have been struggling with your hearing, be sure to see a specialist as soon as possible. Work on improving your hearing sooner rather than later and maybe more helpful research of the zebrafish will surface in the meantime.

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