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NIDCD Celebrates 20 Years of Communication Research with Scientific Symposium

NIDCD Director James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., welcomes participants to the 20th Anniversary Symposium at NIH’s Natcher Conference Center.

During a health break, participants share ideas and resources with representatives of professional and advocacy organizations.

Members of the audience try out a smell identification test developed with NIDCD funding.

NIDCD intramural scientists discuss their latest research findings with participants during the afternoon poster session.

Author Lee Woodruff knows what it’s like to have her whole world turned upside down—twice. The first time was when she learned that her smiling, contented 9-month-old daughter, one of twins, had a severe hearing loss. The second time occurred just six years later, when her husband, ABC World News anchor and reporter Bob Woodruff, was critically wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

“It was an in-an-instant moment,” she told an audience of rapt listeners in the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) Natcher Auditorium, borrowing from the title of the best-selling book that she and her husband coauthored about their family’s experience.

Ms. Woodruff was quick to point out that such moments don’t have to be as extreme as being hit by a 155 millimeter shell laden with rocks. These are moments that can happen to any of us at anytime.

“It’s anything,” she said. “It’s breast cancer. It’s the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for your father. It’s the drunk driver who slips across the median and, God forbid, kills or injures your child. It’s all of those little things that collectively make up life.”

Such life issues—from the discovery of an infant’s hearing loss to a husband’s newfound difficulty in retrieving words to any number of devastating disorders that affect the way people interact with the world around them—were the focus of attention when NIH staff members, intramural and extramural researchers, former and current administrators, and others gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the NIDCD. Held Thursday, October 23, 2008, the symposium shone a light on advances that have been made in the last two decades toward our understanding of hearing, balance, smell, taste, voice, speech, and language disorders. It also showcased the stories and talents of several individuals who have experienced a communication disorder—be it directly or indirectly—and who have likely benefited in some way from this research.

The events were kicked off by James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD since 1998. Dr. Battey noted the sheer numbers of people who are affected by communication disorders and stressed the need for increased study of their potential causes, diagnosis, and treatment. Ten percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have suffered hearing loss due to loud noise exposure; 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing loss; almost eight million Americans report a chronic problem with balance; nearly one million Americans have aphasia, a disorder that affects a person’s ability to express and understand language; and 15 percent of Americans over 55 have an impaired sense of smell. That incidence doubles for people between 70 and 80 and doubles again for people over 80.

Dr. Battey pointed to several areas in which we’ve made significant progress since the institute’s start, with genetics ranking high on the list.

“In 1988 we knew that deafness could be inherited, but the specific genes were not known at that time,” he said. “Today we know of literally hundreds of genes that are linked to hearing loss.”

Other areas of progress include the enhancement of the cochlear implant, which enables a person with severe hearing loss to communicate without relying on visual cues; the development of imaging tools that make it possible for us to understand brain activity patterns that are critical for communication; and the discovery of a family of odorant receptors that allow us to understand the molecular basis for how the olfactory system detects up to 10,000 different smells.

Dr. Battey also recognized the contributions of former administrators who provided vision and leadership during the institute’s nascent years. In attendance were Jay Moskowitz, M.D., who served as acting director at the institute’s inception; James Snow, M.D., the institute’s first director, who served from 1990 through 1998; Donald Luecke, M.D., the institute’s first deputy director; and David Lim, M.D., the NIDCD’s first scientific director.

Raynard Kington, M.D., Ph.D., acting director of NIH, paid homage to the individuals who helped pave the way for the creation of the NIDCD. Principal among them were Geraldine Fox, formerly with the Deafness Research Foundation, and Robert Rubin, M.D., of Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and a fervent advocate for children with hearing loss. Said Dr. Kington, “Dr. Rubin and Mrs. Fox found the right person at the right time who understood this agenda for understanding, ameliorating, and preventing communication disorders very personally.” That person was Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who sponsored the legislation that created the NIDCD. On October 28, 1988, Public Law 100-553 was signed by President Reagan.

“As many of you know, this is personal with me,” Senator Harkin said in videotaped remarks in which he congratulated the institute on its milestone and achievements to date. “My late brother Frank was deaf from an early age. He inspired me to sponsor the Americans with Disabilities Act and he also inspired me to do whatever I can to make possible new therapies to improve the lives of millions who confront hearing loss and other communication disorders.” He noted with pride that the institute’s budget has more than quadrupled since the first year, from $94 million in 1988 to $396 million today.

Scientists whose research has been funded by NIDCD presented overviews of how far along their fields—representing all seven of NIDCD's mission areas—have progressed in the past 20 years. These extramural scientists also offered their predictions about the questions tomorrow’s grant applications will be addressing.

For her discussion on hearing loss and aging, Karen Cruickshanks, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the University of Wisconsin, cited statistics from the Beaver Dam Study, a longitudinal epidemiological study of vision and hearing loss in residents of Beaver Dam, Wis.

According to Dr. Cruickshanks, 20 years ago, hearing loss was considered a normal part of aging. Today, researchers have discovered that certain factors—including noise, genetics, and cardiovascular health—may play an important role in determining one’s risk for age-related hearing loss. With improvements such as better noise restrictions in the workplace, increased exercise, and healthier diets, hearing health may actually be better for baby boomers in comparison to people who lived in earlier eras, she said.

David Corey, Ph.D., neurobiologist with Harvard Medical School, described for attendees the extraordinary collective effort that has been made to understand the mechanism by which sensory structures in the inner ear, also known as hair cells, convert sound vibrations into an electrical signal. Because of research of the past two decades, we now have a more precise picture of the molecular composition and properties of these sensory structures.

John Niparko, M.D., a cochlear implant expert at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, charted the history of the cochlear implant, beginning with very rudimentary studies in France in the early 1950s and progressing to the sophisticated multichannel implants of today. He presented data from a multicenter study he oversees in which the language abilities of children who received cochlear implants at various ages are being evaluated in comparison to each other and to children with normal hearing. His team has discovered that socioeconomic status can impact the language abilities of young cochlear implant wearers. Also two cochlear implants seem to be preferable to one in helping a child learn language.

What we know about our sense of smell and what we’ve yet to find out were addressed by professor and Nobel laureate Richard Axel, M.D., Howard Hughes investigator at Columbia University. Dr. Axel, together with Linda Buck, Ph.D., transformed the study of olfaction when they identified a large family of genes that encode the olfactory receptors located high in the nasal cavity. In his discussion, Dr. Axel focused less on the nose and more on the brain, tackling the question: How does the brain know what the nose is smelling? Although we still don’t have the answer, sophisticated imaging demonstrates that individual smells exhibit distinctive patterns in the brain. His research team is currently studying the fruit fly to find out how the brain interprets smells to elicit certain behaviors, both innate and learned. He’s also exploring how experience, emotion, and expectation play a role in the way we perceive smells.

Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, described work in the field of taste research. Twenty years ago, he said, scientists were trying to determine what the taste receptors were. This all changed when investigators identified the genes that encode the receptors for sweet taste. Researchers have recently found these same receptors present in the gut, which could have an impact on our understanding of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other important health issues. Dr. Beauchamp is also exploring how experience determines how someone perceives taste. In several studies conducted by his laboratory, babies demonstrated a like or dislike for a taste depending on the point of time at which they were first introduced to it.

Child language expert Helen Tager-Flusberg, Ph.D., of Boston University School of Medicine, described two areas that have emerged in the field since the NIDCD’s start: specific language impairment (SLI) and autism spectrum disorders. SLI is a childhood communication disorder in which language does not develop on schedule despite the child’s having normal skills in other areas. Autism is characterized by difficulties in understanding and using language in addition to other social and behavioral impairments. Among the findings she described are that children with SLI and high-functioning children with autism are comparable in their ability to understand and express certain language patterns. In addition, a child’s use of gestures seems to be a good predictor of language development and may one day help in the diagnosis and treatment of both SLI and autism.

Robert Remez, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive psychology and an expert on speech perception at Columbia University, addressed the question of how we are able to recognize speech sounds from the many sounds that surround us. Using synthesized speech technology that mimics the frequencies of normal speech, he demonstrated that acoustic modulation—the subtle changes in pitch and tone when we talk—is required to capture the brain’s attention to interpret those sounds as speech.

In addition to Ms. Woodruff, musicians Richard Reed and Yew Choong Cheong offered a human dimension to the topic of communication disorders. Reed, who formerly played organ and piano with Junior Walker and the All Stars, used his keyboard as background to demonstrate how his cochlear implant changed the way he perceives music. Yew Choong Cheong, a doctoral student with hearing loss at West Virginia University, played classical music in the atrium of the Natcher building during the morning registration and afternoon reception.

Also showcased at the reception was the NIDCD’s intramural program, which has contributed significantly to the NIDCD’s research success over the past 20 years. The NIDCD scientists presented posters in such areas as cellular and molecular biology; genetics; neurochemistry; developmental neuroscience; auditory mechanics; otolaryngology; brain imaging and modeling; head and neck surgery; and vaccine research.

To watch the Webcast of the 20th Anniversary Symposium go to NIDCD’s Web site or go to the NIH Webcast site.

Last Updated Date: 
June 7, 2010