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Summer 2016

Feature Stories

Whether it’s pine trees in a forest or coffee brewing, every odor triggers a process inside the nose that activates a unique combination of cells that signal the brain to identify the odor. Now, a novel method developed by NIDCD-supported scientists from Duke University provides a new resource to identify the molecules and mechanisms involved in odor detection.

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On June 2, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released the consensus study report, Hearing Health Care for Adults: Priorities for Improving Access and Affordability. Cosponsored by the NIDCD and the National Institute on Aging, as well as four other federal agencies and a nonprofit patient advocacy group, the report provides a thorough analysis of the state of hearing health care for adults in the U.S.

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Recent NIDCD and NIH Research News

Hearing, Balance

Scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear and Harvard Medical School have described, for the first time, how the adult brain can compensate for inner ear damage to detect some sounds but not understand more complex sounds, such as speech. The researchers focused on structures in the inner ear of mice, where thousands of tiny nerve fibers make up the auditory nerve that sends sound from the ear to the brain. In upcoming studies, the researchers plan to look more closely at debilitating conditions like tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (sensitivity to sounds). 

Researchers who test drugs to treat hearing loss often encounter difficulties knowing if the concentration of the medication is effective and if it goes directly where it is needed in the ear structure. To overcome these road blocks, NIDCD-supported engineers at the Draper Laboratory have collaborated with clinicians and scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear to develop a device that delivers drugs directly into a hard-to-reach area of the inner ear called the cochlea. 

Previous studies by scientists studying genes that cause hearing loss showed that mice lacking a gene known as S1PR2 have profound deafness. Scientists have now found that mutations in this gene are associated with hearing loss in two Pakistani families. This research shows that S1PR2 is an essential protein in the inner ear. The discovery provides scientists with valuable information about genes that cause hearing loss and about how this protein may be affected by antibiotics that can harm sensory hair cells, which are critical to hearing.

Researchers at Georgia State University report that a protein known as MyD88 plays a major role in how the body’s immune system responds to bacteria and viruses that can cause a variety of diseases, including otitis media (ear infections). This new insight is an important step in developing therapies or drugs to control inflammation and treat infections. 

A vestibular schwannoma is a benign, usually slow-growing tumor that develops from the balance and hearing nerves supplying the inner ear. A new study from scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear shows that secretions from the tumor contain toxic molecules that damage the inner ear. This explains why some people with vestibular schwannoma have hearing loss even when the tumors are not large enough to compress nearby structures that control hearing. Scientists can now explore new therapies to inhibit the production of toxins that can damage hearing.

At least 80 percent of children will experience otitis media (ear infection) before age three. The infection is the leading cause of chronic conductive hearing loss. Scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear examined changes in the inner ear of mice with chronic conductive hearing loss and found that sound deprivation causes irreversible damage to the inner ear. The findings suggest that early intervention and treatment is important for children with ear infections. 

A new study in Science Translational Medicine describes three software innovations that substantially improve the user experience and performance of the BrainGate brain computer interface (BCI). Researchers say that the gains are a significant advance in their ongoing work to develop and test a practical BCI assistive technology that people with paralysis could use easily, reliably, independently, and on demand to regain control over external devices.

An animal study by scientists at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has shown that the inner ear contains cells that act similarly to pain-sensing neurons located in other parts of the body. These nerve cells, called afferent nerve cells, take information from the inner ear to the brain. This finding could lead scientists to study possible ways that these pain-sensing nerve cells are blocked elsewhere in the body, and to attempt to translate the findings to the prevention or treatment of hyperacusis in humans, an increased sensitivity to loud noises that can lead to severe and long-lasting ear pain. 

Scientists at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have discovered that the foundations that house the cellular proteins essential for hearing are not stationary scaffolding structures, as previously thought, but are in constant motion. Understanding how these proteins adjust and move in the inner ear may provide clues to a possible repair function when damage occurs to these cells and results in hearing loss. 

Taste, Smell

How people detect salty taste is a complex process that is an important area of research because of the widespread overconsumption of salt, particularly from processed foods. Too much salt raises blood pressure and can cause health problems, including heart disease, kidney failure, and stroke. Researchers at the Monell Center have identified a second salt taste mechanism; this finding may lead to new approaches to activating salty taste.

What makes some foods taste more sour than others? Researchers have known that acidic substances trigger the sour taste sensation on the tongue. Also, the lower the pH of a substance, the more sour something should taste. But not all substances follow that rule; for example, based on its pH, vinegar should taste more sour than it does. Researchers at the University of Southern California have discovered that in addition to pH, the concentration of weak acids (such as acetic acid, found in vinegar) plays a significant role in how sour something tastes. This explains why weak acids taste more sour than strong acids. 

Researchers at the Monell Center have found that genetics and some other unexpected factors help to determine whether a child has a “sweet tooth.” In a study of 216 healthy children ages 7-14, children’s sensitivity to sugar varied widely: the most sensitive children required the equivalent of only 0.005 teaspoon of sugar in a cup of water to detect sweetness, whereas the least sensitive children needed three teaspoons to get the same sensation. The researchers also found that children who had a variation of a bitter-sensitive gene were more sensitive to sugars. The researchers expected that children with more body fat would be insensitive to sugar and would need higher concentrations than leaner children to receive the same pleasing effect. In fact, the opposite was true: heavier children could detect sweet tastes at lower sugar concentrations. 

Voice, Speech, Language

Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists have pinpointed the parts of the brain that control how we write words. This research links basic spelling difficulties with damage to seemingly unrelated regions of the brain, shedding new light on how language and memory work. The findings offer some of the first clear evidence of how the brain works to spell, an understanding that could lead to improved behavioral treatments after brain damage and more effective ways to teach spelling.

University of Wisconsin scientists have succeeded in growing functional vocal cord tissue in the laboratory, a major step toward restoring a voice to people who have lost their vocal cords to cancer surgery or other injuries. Researchers began with vocal cord tissue from patients who had had their larynxes removed but did not have cancer. They isolated, purified, and grew the cells from the mucosa, then applied them to a 3-D collagen scaffold, similar to a system used to grow artificial skin in the laboratory. Moving this work forward requires more testing of both safety and long-term function.

NIDCD Highlights

Amy Donahue, Ph.D., deputy director of the NIDCD’s Division of Scientific Programs, received the James B. Snow, Jr., M.D., Award at the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA)’s annual convention in Washington, DC, on June 26, 2016. The award was created by the HLAA in 1997 to honor the contributions of Dr. Snow—the first director of the NIDCD—toward furthering scientific research in the field of hearing loss. The award is given annually to a recipient who exemplifies this spirit.

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The National Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NDCD) Advisory Council recently welcomed six new members. The council advises the director of the NIDCD on matters relating to the institute’s core mission areas of hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech, and language.

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Katie Kindt, Ph.D., acting chief of the NIDCD's Section on Sensory Cell Development and Function, received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) on May 5 in a White House ceremony.

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On May 10, NIDCD Director James F. Battey, Jr, M.D., Ph.D., hosted former Sen. Thomas Harkin (D-IA) at the Porter Neuroscience Research Center on the NIH’s Bethesda, Maryland, campus. Sen. Harkin wrote the 1988 legislation that established the NIDCD. 

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On December 1, 2015, the NIDCD director hosted members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on the NIH campus.

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On October 22, 2015, the Friends of the Congressional Hearing Health Caucus sponsored a Congressional Hearing Health Forum and Hearing Screening Event on Capitol Hill.

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Over the past year, the NIDCD held two talks by intramural scientists who presented their work as part of the institute’s speaker series, Beyond the Lab, Understanding Communication Disorders. Designed for NIH nonscientific staff as well as the general public, the series offers the opportunity to learn about the NIDCD’s research advances in communication disorders—conditions that will directly affect about one in six Americans. 

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Matthew W. Kelley, Ph.D., chief of the NIDCD’s Laboratory of Cochlear Development, has been named president of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology (ARO), the professional organization that encourages and promotes research in the field and stimulates scientific interest among its members.

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The NIH has launched a Spanish-language health information website, Portal de Información de Salud de NIH. The site offers free, evidence-based health information from across the NIH, on topics ranging from child health to aging.

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In March, the NIDCD implemented several enhancements to our website. Key features of the revised website include site-wide responsive design, redesigned research and funding sections, a new research training/career development section, and an expanded Spanish consumer health information section.

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Noisy Planet

The NIDCD Noisy Planet team continues to raise awareness about healthy hearing habits.

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If you’ve ever been to a concert, you know how loud the music can get! Now think about the members of those bands, who are exposed to loud music for hours, night after night. The rock bands AC/DC and Pearl Jam recently made news regarding noise-induced hearing loss.

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Noisy Planet offers free materials that are great for distributing at health fairs and other events and through your social media channels. The campaign’s order form is available for parents, educators, and health care professionals to view, download, and order materials and publications. 

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