Written by By Rachel Hamilton, CNN
The sound a bird makes can hurt your balance, and today’s hearing aids allow you to hear not just the outside world, but your own thoughts.
What if you could control your sensory inputs to turn them on and off at the touch of a button?
That might sound amazing but it could be pretty close. According to a new study published in the Journal of the American Society of Cell Biology, a group of researchers at the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine have discovered a way to open the door to a new kind of hearing implant — the first that can trigger the release of chemicals in the inner ear.
It’s a tricky question to understand what makes hearing such a powerful sensory input: Do we use both auditory and visual stimuli together? The team of researchers — led by Avram Rabinowitz, professor of otolaryngology at UC San Diego — think our sense of sound has evolved to avoid impairments due to the visual, auditory and motor components.
The cell model experiments they carried out show that, in cells of the inner ear, sensory and psychical organs coexist in an exchange network with resistance to change.
The breakthrough comes from the way the researchers turn proteins into viruses that travel through hair cells, the cells found in the inner ear. The harmless viruses integrate into the cells and make them produce nucleotides (lycanocetic acids, similar to DNA), which are DNA bases.
The cells are then allowed to grow to maturity and the proteins are released from the cells to stimulate synaptic activity.
“We think the ability to affect sensory input by triggering nerve cells with chemical signals is what makes a hearing aid,” Rabinowitz said in a press release.
He describes the process as a kind of “neurological ‘closed shop’ which can be broken by putting a screwdriver into the wall.”
The molecules are stored in the nerve cells until they’re released into the auditory cortex to either stimulate or inhibit auditory stimuli.
The team also found that activating a cell using the protein moldamucil led to loss of functional hair cells.
On a slow path
The study is a radical departure from previous research. Researchers had previously been limited to the controlled studies of genes, tumors and numerous other viruses, according to the press release.
“With the advent of laboratory-based protein activation, we are able to rapidly study cellular behavior without using risky and invasive laboratory experiments,” adds Rabinowitz.
This is a breakthrough with dramatic potential for human health. Currently, a person could go nearly three years without ever using a hearing aid — if it was there — until the need arose, according to the press release.
The researchers believe this technology could be made available for use in people by the middle of the next decade.