You are here

Inside NIDCD Newsletter

Winter 2014

Feature Stories

Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (MdDS), a severe form of motion sickness that can persist for months or years, has been recognized for decades, but its cause has been elusive, and there has been no effective way to treat it. Now, drawing insight from earlier work, preliminary findings from a small study by a team of NIDCD-supported researchers are pointing to a promising treatment for MdDS.

Read more.

Recent NIDCD and NIH Research News

Hearing, Balance

A study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, funded in part by the NIDCD, found that women who regularly consumed fish were less likely to report hearing loss compared to women who rarely consumed fish. Using data from 65,215 women who were followed from 1991 to 2009 as part of the Nurses’ Health Study II, a prospective cohort study, researchers report that women who consumed two or more servings of fish per week had a 20 percent lower risk of hearing loss compared to women who ate less than one serving of fish per month. When examined individually, higher consumption of each specific fish type was inversely associated with risk. Higher intake of long-chain omega-3PUFA was also inversely associated with risk of hearing loss. More research is needed to better understand these relationships, however.

Using a new imaging technique, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were able to watch auditory processing in the brains of mice listening to tones and other mice calls. The imaging technique allowed researchers to zoom in and out on views of brain activity within mice, and it enabled the team to watch brain cells light up as mice “called” to each other. The results, which represent a step toward better understanding how our own brains process language, could lead to better ways of treating people with hearing loss. The study was funded in part by the NIDCD.

A team of researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin has developed a tiny, low-power device that mimics a fly’s hearing mechanism. Using the Ormia ochracea fly’s ear structure as a model, researchers built a miniature pressure-sensitive device out of silicon that replicates the fly’s super-evolved hearing structure. The 2-millimeter-wide device is nearly identical in size to the fly’s hearing organ. The researchers are the first to apply piezoelectric materials, materials that turn mechanical pressure into electric signals, or voltage, and allow the device to operate with very little power. The new device could be used to build the next generation of hypersensitive hearing aids with intelligent microphones that adaptively focus only on those conversations or sounds that are of interest to the wearer. The research was funded by the Defense Advanced research Projects Agency, and builds on research funded by the NIDCD.

Two NIDCD-funded researchers at Oregon Health & Science University submitted one of 12 winning images and videos in the 2014 Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) annual BioArt competition. Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D, and Kateri Spinelli, Ph.D., won for their submission that used scanning electron microscopy to capture the sensory hair cells of a chick. The image comes from joint work to discover better methods to detect and treat hearing loss and disrupted balance.   

A team led by researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School’s Kresge Hearing Research Institute and Harvard University, has restored the hearing of mice partly deafened by noise. Researchers, funded in part by NIDCD, used a special genetic technique to boost the production of NT3—a key protein crucial to the body’s ability to form and maintain connection between hair cells and nerve cells—in cells of specific areas of the inner ear after mice were exposed to noise loud enough to reduce hearing. Mice with extra NT3 regained their ability to hear much better than the control mice. These new findings could pave the way for research in humans that could improve treatment of hearing loss caused by noise exposure and normal aging. 

Researchers led by a team from the University of Michigan Medical School’s Kresge Hearing Research Institute and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, have shown that supporting cells in mice can regenerate if damaged in the first days of life, allowing hearing to develop normally. Damage to supporting cells in the mature mouse results in the loss of hair cells and profound deafness, but the team of researchers, funded in part by the NIDCD, found that when supporting cells in newborn mice were destroyed, new supporting cells were regenerated and hearing was preserved. Researchers hope that a better understanding of the processes involved in the regeneration of supporting cells in newborn mice will provide insight for new approaches to regenerate auditory cells and restore hearing for humans of all ages.

A team of Harvard and Massachusetts Eye and Ear researchers has developed a system that uses commercially available molecules called cationic lipids—long, greasy molecules that carry a positive charge—to efficiently deliver genome-editing proteins into cells, and has even demonstrated that the technology can be used to perform genome editing in living animals. The researchers, funded in part by the NIDCD, showed that the new system, when applied to the delivery of genome editing proteins, results in target gene modification that is at least as efficient as the best results they observed from the delivery of DNA encoding genome-editing proteins. Researchers also found that the new system of protein delivery results in higher specificity of genome editing—how accurately the targeted genes are modified versus modification of other sites in the human genome—compared to DNA delivery. Researchers used the newly developed system to modify genes in specialized hair cells in the inner ear of mice. The scientists believe genome-editing proteins may serve as the next generation of therapies for a host of disorders that have been difficult to treat, including some forms of deafness.

Researchers at the NIH have for the first time purified a key part of myosin 15, a molecular motor protein that helps build healthy hearing structures in the inner ear. Mutations in the myosin 15 gene (MYO15A) have been linked to a form of hereditary deafness in humans. Using a novel approach that involved chaperone molecules to express the protein, researchers have revealed the first detailed insight into the molecule’s structure and function, laying the foundation for new treatments for some forms of hearing loss. Jonathan Bird, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the NIDCD Laboratory of Molecular Genetics, was the lead author. 

Researchers at the NIDCD, working as part of a team of scientists with The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Network, have identified a characteristic molecular pattern shared by head and neck, lung, and some bladder cancers. Researchers analyzed the molecular characteristics of 3,527 samples representing 12 different cancers and found that most of the cancer types studied had a molecular profile linked to their original tissue of origin, but head and neck cancers almost universally fell into the same molecular subgroup as most of the lung cancer samples, and some of the bladder cancer samples. The molecular profile offers information that could help physicians diagnose and develop new treatment strategies for these diseases.

Taste, Smell

New NIDCD-funded research from the Monell Center reveals that simply believing that an odor is potentially harmful can increase airway inflammation in people with asthma for at least 24 hours following exposure. Researchers exposed 17 study participants with moderate asthma to the odor phenylethyl alcohol (PEA), a rose-smelling chemical with no irritant qualities, for 15 minutes. Eight of the volunteers were told that the odor had potential therapeutic qualities, while nine were told that it could cause mild respiratory problems. Individuals who were told the odor could trigger breathing problems had more airway inflammation immediately and 24 hours after exposure compared to individuals who were told the odor had potential therapeutic properties. Researchers want to identify the biological mechanisms that connect expectations to airway inflammation and determine whether a reverse phenomenon also exists.

Florida State University researchers, funded by the NIDCD, have linked a high-fat diet with structural and functional changes in the olfactory system, demonstrating a link between loss of smell and dietary intake in mice. Over six months, the researchers fed the mice a high-fat diet daily while also training them to associate a particular odor with a reward. Mice that were fed the high-fat diets were slower to learn the association than the control group. When researchers introduced a new odor to monitor their adjustment, the mice with the high-fat diets could not rapidly adapt, demonstrating a reduced ability to smell. The results have researchers looking at how diet could affect a range of human functions not traditionally considered when examining the impact of obesity. 

Receptors for glucocorticoids (stress-activated hormones) have been localized in oral taste cells responsible for detection of sweet, umami, and bitter, according to new NIDCD-funded research from the Monell Center. Glucocorticoid (GC) hormones affect the body by activating specialized GC receptors located inside of cells. To explore whether GC receptors in taste tissue are activated by stress, the researchers compared the proportion of taste cells with translocated receptors in stressed and non-stressed mice. Compared to mice in the control group, the stressed mice had a 77 percent increase of GC receptors within taste cell nuclei. The results suggest that sweet taste perception and intake, which are known to be altered by stress, may be specifically affected by secretion of GCs and subsequent activation of GC receptors in taste cells.

One of the world's deadliest mosquitoes sustains its taste for human blood thanks in part to a genetic tweak that makes it more sensitive to human odor, according to new research from Princeton University and funded in part by the NIDCD. Researchers found that the yellow fever mosquito contains a version of an odor-detecting gene in its antennae that is highly attuned to sulcatone, a compound prevalent in human odor. The researchers found that the gene, AaegOr4, is more abundant and more sensitive in the human-preferring "domestic" form of the yellow fever mosquito than in its ancestral "forest" form that prefers the blood of non-human animals. The research provides a rare glimpse at the genetic changes that cause behaviors to evolve and could help in developing better ways to stem the yellow fever mosquito's appetite for humans.

Voice, Speech, Language

A study of 473 sets of twins followed since birth found that compared with single-born children, 47 percent of 24-month-old identical twins had language delay compared with 31 percent of nonidentical twins. Overall, twins had twice the rate of late language emergence compared to single-born children. A team of NIDCD-funded researchers from the University of Kansas and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research and the University of Western Australia used an innovative measure of early grammatical ability that has been used to detect specific language impairment, a common language disorder. They found that all of the language traits analyzed in the study—vocabulary, combining words, and grammar—were significantly heritable, with genes accounting for about 43 percent of the overall twins’ deficit. The “twinning effect"—a lower level of language performance for twins than single-born children—was expected to be comparable for both kinds of twins, but was greater for identical twins, which researchers said strengthens the case for the heritability of language development. More research is being done to determine the role of prematurity and birth complications, more common in identical twins, in the higher rates of language delay.

Familiar voices can improve spoken language processing among school-age children, according to an NIDCD-funded study by researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Researchers asked 41 children to listen to and repeat a series of words. Then the children spent five days learning the voices of three German-English bilingual speakers. Finally, the children completed tasks in which they were asked to repeat words they heard spoken by six German-English speakers, three of whose voices the children had already heard. Researchers found that children could more accurately repeat the words spoken by familiar voices, demonstrating that their spoken language processing improved with familiar speakers. The improvement was limited to the words children were likely to know, however; the familiarity was not useful for words they didn’t know.

Using ultrasound technology to visualize the tongue’s shape and movement can help children with difficulty pronouncing “r” sounds, according to researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and Montclair State University. The NIDCD-funded researchers conducted two small studies. In the first study, four children were taught to make a bunched tongue shape, guided by ultrasound, in an effort to better pronounce “r;” researchers saw small improvements among the participants. In the second study, four other children were allowed to choose their own tongue shape. Using ultrasound to visualize their tongues, all four participants in the second study showed significant improvement in their “r” sounds.