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Have you ever wondered exactly how your ear works, and how you’re able to hear? In biology class you probably learned the basics of hearing. Sound waves enter your ear, hit the ear drum, and cause vibrations in the fluid-filled cochlea, or inner ear. The cells of the inner ear pick up on this vibration, and send electrical signals to the brain that you interpret as sound. But scientists want to know more about the exact mechanism of hearing, and have recently discovered a protein that enables hearing and balance.
Discovering Cells in the Ear
Researchers at Harvard Medical School recently published some of their latest findings in the journal Neuron. After a lot of research and experimentation to isolate precise mechanisms in hearing, they’ve discovered a protein that is responsible for hearing. Named TMC1, this protein is found on the hair cells within the inner ear, the cells that feel vibrations in the cochlea. TMC1 is the cell that is able to convert sound waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain so you can hear. Without this protein, you wouldn’t be able to hear. TMC1 also senses movements of your head and of your body. As you move, the fluid in your ears moves, and the TMC1 protein sends these signals to the brain. Not only does this protein help you hear, it’s responsible for keeping you balanced and walking in a straight line.
For scientists interested in how the body works, this discovery is a big deal. “The search for this sensor protein has led to numerous dead ends,” says David Corey, one of the senior authors on the paper, “but we think this discovery ends the quest.” Now that they’ve discovered this protein, they’re doing further research to discover more about how it works, and what else it can do.
Other Animals also have TMC1 Proteins
Humans aren’t the only ones with TMC1 proteins in our ears. Many species throughout the animal kingdom have the same protein, and now that we know what it does, it makes sense. Many vertebrates share this same hearing and balance mechanism, and scientists are discovering this protein in more and more animals. Without the TMC1 protein many of these species wouldn’t have survived, and the fact that TMC1 is found in so many animals lends weight to the researchers’ conclusion that this really is the mechanism of balance and hearing, and scientists are calling it the “gatekeeper of hearing”.
Implications for Genetic Hearing Loss
Many people face hearing loss as a normal part of aging, or from repeated exposure to dangerously loud noise. However, some people are born with hearing loss, and their struggle to hear can be linked to genetic causes. If scientists have uncovered the mechanism of hearing, does that change anything for those with genetic hearing loss? In the U.S. 2 or 3 of every 1,000 children are born with hearing loss. Scientists believe that many of these could be caused by mutations in the TMC1 protein, and think that further research and understanding of how this protein functions could be the key to successfully treating genetic or hereditary hearing loss.
Pacific Northwest Audiology
If you’ve been struggling to hear, have tinnitus, or have problems with balancing, visit us at Pacific Northwest Audiology to talk about your hearing health. While we can’t give you new TMC1 cells, we can help you find the hearing device that’s right for you. Wearing hearing aids will give you the ability to follow conversations with ease, and keep you upright and on your feet. You’ll be able to hear all the sounds around you, have great spatial awareness, and will feel steady and strong when standing.
We work with the top hearing aid brands in the world, who produce some truly astonishing hearing technology. From the best in connectivity features, to invisible devices that sit within your ear canal, we have it all. Love listening to music, or want a hearing aid that can be controlled from your smartphone? Our powerful hearing devices can be programed to match your exact hearing needs, and be customized with all the features you’ll love.