Have you ever found yourself straining to catch a whispered conversation or missing the sweet subtleties of your favorite song? The gradual loss of hearing, like a fading melody, can be both disconcerting and disheartening – especially considering that hearing loss is generally considered permanent.
Or is it? Recent research is revealing that there may be hope on the horizon for restoring hearing loss. And this hope lies in a treatment known as stem cell therapy.
Today, we’re going to explore exactly how the intricate process of hearing works, what causes us to lose the ability to hear in the first place, and how stem cell therapy might just be the key to restoring the precious sense of sound to those struggling with hearing loss. Let's dive in.
How Exactly Does Hearing Work: A Look At How the Ear Works
Our ability to hear and process sounds is possible thanks to a complex series of steps that goes something like this:1,2
- Sound waves enter the ear: Sound is created when an object vibrates, producing pressure waves in the surrounding air. As these sound waves travel through the air, they enter your outer ear, and ear canal – which work together to collect and funnel sound waves toward your eardrum.
- Sound waves reach the eardrum: When sound waves reach the end of the ear canal, they strike the eardrum (a thin, flexible membrane) – causing it to vibrate. The eardrum's vibrations are transmitted to three small bones in the middle ear called the ossicles which are designed to amplify the vibrations from the eardrum and transmit them to your inner ear.
- Vibrations are transferred to the cochlea: The vibrations from the ossicles are then transferred to the cochlea – a spiral-shaped, fluid-filled structure in your inner ear. Inside the cochlea are thousands of tiny hair cells that are responsible for converting mechanical vibrations into electrical signals.
- Electrical signals are generated: As these vibrations travel through the cochlear fluid, they cause the hair cells to move. The movement of the hair cells generates electrical signals.
- Electrical signals are transferred to the brain: These electrical signals are then transmitted to what’s known as the spiral ganglion – a cluster of nerve cell bodies located in your cochlea that’s responsible for transmitting auditory information from the hair cells to your brain. Once these nerve signals make their way to the brain, they are processed in the auditory cortex – a part of the brain responsible for interpreting and making sense of the sound signals.
- Sound perception: The auditory cortex processes the signals and allows you to perceive and interpret the sound – allowing you to distinguish between different pitches, volumes, and types of sounds as well as locate the source of the sound in space.
- Sound interpretation: The brain's interpretation of the sound signals gives rise to our perception of the world of sound – enabling us to understand speech, enjoy music, and be aware of our auditory environment.
Now let’s zoom in on what exactly goes wrong in this process that can lead to hearing loss.
What Causes Hearing Loss?
Hearing loss can result from various factors and mechanisms, depending on where in the hearing process things go awry. In general, the primary types of hearing loss include:3,4
- Conductive hearing loss: Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is a problem in the outer or middle ear that prevents sound from reaching the inner ear. This can be due to issues with the ear canal, eardrum, or ossicles.
- Sensorineural hearing loss: Sensorineural hearing loss results from damage to the hair cells in the inner ear (cochlea), the spiral ganglion, or the auditory nerve. This type of hearing loss affects the ability to convert sound vibrations into electrical signals and transmit them to the brain.
- Central hearing loss and functional hearing loss: These forms of hearing loss occur when there is some sort of damage or dysfunction in the central auditory processing centers of the brain or a psychological issue with perceiving sounds. In these types of hearing loss, the ear itself is functioning normally, but the brain cannot process sound signals correctly.
So, how do we address hearing loss caused by abnormalities or damage to structures within the ear?
How Is Hearing Loss Treated?
In cases of conductive hearing loss (where the hearing loss is caused by structural abnormalities in the outer or middle ear) surgery may be an effective solution. Surgery can be used to repair perforated eardrums, remove blockages or growths in the ear canal, or even reconstruct the ossicles (the small bones in the middle ear) to help restore hearing. But when it comes to addressing sensorineural hearing loss resulting from damage to the hair cells in the inner ear (cochlea), the spiral ganglia, or the auditory nerve, treatment can be a little more limited.
Routine treatment for sensorineural related hearing loss typically includes the use of medical devices – namely hearing aids (which work by amplifying sounds), and cochlear implants (which directly stimulate the auditory nerve, bypassing damaged hair cells in the inner ear). While these treatment options are certainly remarkable and can result in drastic improvements in hearing, they never fully restore the ability to hear.
However, recent research has revealed that there might just be a new way to address the underlying cause of sensorineural hearing loss and potentially restore the ability to hear. This remarkable discovery comes in the form of a treatment known as regenerative medicine – and more specifically as stem cell therapy.
How Can Stem Cells Be Used To Treat Hearing Loss?
Unlike some other species, humans are unable to regenerate hair cells in the cochlea and inner ear after the hair cells are damaged – meaning any once these hairs are damaged, any hearing impairment is permanent. Or at least that’s what we’ve believed in the past. Emerging research has found that there might just be a way to regenerate and repair cochlear hair cells and the nerve cells that conduct the signals they generate.
This regeneration might just be possible thanks to stem cell therapy, via a process that goes something like this:5,6,7
- Stem cell and progenitor cell identification: Stem cells are undifferentiated cells – meaning they can differentiate or morph into a variety of specialized cell types in your body. Progenitor cells, also known as precursor cells, are a type of stem cell that is more specialized than true stem cells but less so than fully differentiated cells – meaning they can transform into a limited number of specific cell types within a particular tissue.
- Cell differentiation: These stem cells or progenitor cells can be coaxed into differentiating into inner ear cell types, such as hair cells or supporting cells, in a laboratory setting.
- Cell delivery and transplantation: These differentiated cells can then be introduced into the ear to replace damaged or non-functional hair cells.
- Integration with existing tissues: These cells then integrate with your existing cells within auditory structures and establish functional connections.
- Functional recovery: As these newly introduced cells integrate into your inner ear, they begin repairing damaged tissues – helping to spur the growth of new hair cells and reconnect the circuitry within the inner ear.
More time and research are needed to truly decipher the exact role that stem cell therapy might play in the treatment of sensorineural hearing loss. But this ability to tap into our body's natural regenerative capabilities to repair, replace, and restore damaged tissues is promising and exciting – bringing us one step closer to finding a way to effectively restore hearing loss.
Is There Anything Else I Can Do To Protect My Hearing?
The answer to this question is – yes! Some steps you can take to protect and preserve your hearing include:
- Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits: Studies have found that eating a healthy, well-rounded diet that includes lots of fresh fruits and veggies can lower the risk of hearing loss by a whopping 30%.8 If you need some help building a more balanced and healthy diet, be sure to check out my recipe library.
- Minimize processed foods: Foods that are ultra-processed, chock-full of refined sugar, or particularly high in refined sodium can contribute to inflammation and oxidative stress in the body – which can adversely affect the delicate sensory cells in the inner ear. So, it can be helpful to only indulge in these foods sparingly.
- Stay hydrated: Hydration is important for hearing because it ensures an adequate blood supply to the inner ear, which is crucial for the health of sensory structures and hair cells. Proper hydration also helps maintain the balance of fluids in the inner ear – supporting the smooth transmission of sound signals to the brain and overall auditory function.
- Incorporate supplements that boost hearing health: Potassium, zinc, folic acid, and magnesium are four important minerals linked to improved hearing health. While you can get some of these important nutrients from your diet, it can be helpful to incorporate supplements to ensure you’re getting optimal levels.
- Soothe inflammation: Chronic inflammation in the ear can damage delicate hearing structures (such as hair cells and the cochlea) and disrupt the normal functioning of the auditory system. Taking inflammation soothing supplements like Vitamin D and Omega Essentials DHA can help calm your immune system and pump the brakes on inflammation.
- Boost your antioxidant levels: Antioxidants can help combat and repair damage done by ongoing inflammation. In addition to eating an antioxidant-rich diet, it can be helpful to supercharge your antioxidant levels with supplements like Super Tumeric or ResveraMax – both of which contain a concentrated dose of these protective compounds.
- Manage stress: Stress can spike inflammation – which can subsequently put a damper on your hearing.
- Protect your ears from loud noises: Use earplugs or earmuffs in noisy environments, such as concerts, construction sites, or while using power tools. And keep the volume of personal audio devices (like headphones and earbuds) at a safe and moderate level.
These simple proactive steps can go a long way in helping you maintain good hearing health and reduce the risk of hearing loss.
Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine: Hope On the Horizon for Hearing Loss
Advances in regenerative medicine – leveraging our own bodies remarkable capacity for regeneration and healing – has the potential to revolutionize our ability to treat hearing loss. And the possibilities of regenerative medicine don’t end there. While this field is still evolving, the horizon shines with the possibility of new beginnings for countless conditions far beyond hearing loss.
Regenerative medicine and stem cell therapy can undoubtedly produce some impressive and dramatic results. But they aren’t the only way you can tap into your body's innate ability to heal. The day-to-day choices you make about how you care for your body, mind, and soul can ignite your natural, built-in healing capabilities – propelling you towards the vibrant health and longevity you deserve.
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- How Do We Hear? | NIDCD (nih.gov)
- How we hear – How hearing and the auditory system works (healthyhearing.com)
- Hearing loss – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic
- Types of Hearing Loss | CDC
- Frontiers | Stem Cell-Based Therapies in Hearing Loss (frontiersin.org)
- Restoring hearing loss through regenerative medicine | Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI)
- Stem cell therapy: a potential cure for hearing loss? (labiotech.eu)
- Healthy diets linked to lower risk of hearing loss in women | National Institutes of Health (NIH)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.