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Inside NIDCD Newsletter

Fall 2013

Feature Stories

October 28, 2013, marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the NIDCD, and 25 fruitful years of funding research in its mission areas of hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech, and language. Here are research highlights of the past 25 years.

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The NIDCD’s 25th anniversary celebrations took on an added luster when it was announced that the 2013 Lasker~DeBakey Award in Clinical Medical Research was awarded to two NIDCD grantees for their contributions to the development of the modern cochlear implant.

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Recent NIDCD and NIH Research News

Hearing, Balance

Short-term hearing loss during childhood may lead to persistent hearing deficits, long after basic auditory sensitivity has returned to normal. The processing of sound in the brain is shaped by early experience. New research from NIDCD-supported scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear has identified two critical periods occurring shortly after hearing onset that regulate how sounds from each ear are fused into a coherent representation in the brain.

NIDCD-supported researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine say they have pinpointed a site in a highly developed area of the human brain that plays an important role in the subconscious recognition of which way is straight up and which way is down. The finding may help account for some causes of spatial disorientation and dizziness, and offer targets for treating the feelings of unsteadiness and “floating” people experience when the brain fails to properly integrate input from the body’s senses.

Researchers supported by the NIDCD at Indiana University have transformed mouse embryonic stem cells into key structures of the inner ear. The discovery provides new insights into the ear’s developmental process and sets the stage for laboratory models of disease, drug discovery, and potential treatments for hearing loss and balance disorders. By using a three-dimensional cell culture method, they were able to coax stem cells to develop into inner-ear sensory epithelia—containing hair cells, supporting cells, and neurons—that detect sound, head movements, and gravity.

Long-term hearing loss from loud explosions, such as blasts from roadside bombs, may not be as irreversible as previously thought, according to a new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine, who were partly supported by the NIDCD. Using a mouse model, the study found that loud blasts actually cause hair-cell and nerve-cell damage, rather than structural damage, to the cochlea, which is the auditory portion of the inner ear. This could be good news for the millions of soldiers and civilians who, after surviving these often devastating bombs, suffer long-term hearing damage.

Researchers at the NIDCD, working with scientists at Boston Children’s Hospital, recently identified two inner ear proteins that are critical for hearing. The researchers show that the proteins encoded by the TMC1 and TMC2 genes are components of the channels that turn mechanical sound waves into electrical signals that, in turn, communicate with the brain.

Scanning electron microscopy image of a sensory
cell of the mouse inner ear. This top-down view
shows the mechanosensory hair bundle.
(Credit: Yoshiyuki Kawashima, NIDCD)

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), working with researchers in Iceland, have found that hearing impairment and dual sensory impairment (vision and hearing impairment combined) in older men are associated with increased mortality from cardiovascular disease (CVD) and other causes.

Researchers led by scientists at the NIDCD have found that supporting cells in the inner ear, once thought to serve only a structural role, can actively help repair damaged sensory hair cells, the functional cells that turn vibrations into the electrical signals that the brain recognizes as sound. The study reveals the rescuing act that supporting cells and a chemical they produce (called heat shock protein 70) appear to play in protecting damaged hair cells from death.

Taste, Smell

NIDCD-supported scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center and elsewhere have made headway in understanding how variants of bitter taste receptor genes can help account for how people differ with regard to taste perception and food choice. Findings from a new study reveal that a person’s sensitivity to bitter taste is shaped not only by which taste genes that person has, but also by how much messenger RNA—the gene’s instruction guide that tells a taste cell to build a specific receptor—their taste cells make.

Despite major advances in the pharmaceutical treatment of disease, many children reject medicines due to an aversion to bitter taste. As a consequence, the bitter flavor of some oral medications presents a key obstacle to the acceptance and effectiveness of beneficial drugs by children worldwide. A recent review, written by an interdisciplinary team of leading taste scientists, funded in part by the NIDCD, addresses this critical problem by highlighting recent advances in the scientific understanding of bitter taste, with special attention to the sensory world of children.

Scientists from the Monell Center, partly supported by the NIDCD, report the surprising finding that two proteins involved in oral taste detection also play a crucial role in sperm development. The research highlights a connection between the taste system and male reproduction and is one more demonstration that components of the taste system also play important roles in other organ systems.

Voice, Speech, Language

A new study from NIDCD-funded researchers at the University of Illinois shows that the vocal training of older rats reduces some of the voice problems related to their aging, such as the loss of vocal intensity that accompanies changes in the muscles of the larynx. The researchers hope that in the future, voice therapy based on these findings could help aging adults improve their quality of life.

In autism, brain regions tailored to respond to voices are poorly connected to reward-processing circuits, according to a new study by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine, funded in part by the NIDCD. The research could help explain why children with autism struggle to grasp the social and emotional aspects of human speech.

The combinations of anti-HIV drugs recommended for pregnant women don’t appear in general to increase their children’s risk for language delay, according to a study from an NIH research network, which included scientists supported by the NIDCD. Children exposed to HIV in the womb and whose mothers received combinations of anti-HIV drugs during pregnancy were no more likely to have language delays than were children exposed to HIV in the womb and whose mothers did not receive these recommended treatments.

NIDCD Highlights

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) visited the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., to meet with NIH leadership, including NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., and chatted with several young intramural investigators.

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The Friends of the Congressional Hearing Health Caucus (FCHHC) and the NIDCD co-sponsored a congressional staff visit to the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.

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Noisy Planet

In October, the NIDCD participated in a two-day conference jointly hosted by 3M and Dangerous Decibels.

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The NIDCD Noisy Planet team has traveled hundreds of miles throughout the Washington, DC, metropolitan area to educate kids about how to protect their hearing. Join us in celebrating our first five years by visiting the campaign website and taking a look at the major milestones of the campaign’s history.

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In June, NIDCD staff met school nurses from across the country at the 45th annual National Association of School Nurses (NASN) conference in Florida.

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