A recent discovery made by researchers in Boston stands to painlessly restore hearing for millions of people. It involves a drug that was initially intended for Alzheimer's patients but, much to the scientists surprise, proved to be effective at regrowing the tiny hairs in the ears of mice that become damaged after hearing too many loud noises. Essentially, the drug tricks stem cells in the ear into producing these hairs which, when regrown, help the mice hear certain wavelength of sound again. Thanks drugs!
Pretty ironically, the big problem with this breakthrough is that it doesn't quite work as well as existing solutions to hearing loss. For the past three decades, doctors have seen great success at restoring hearing in the deaf through the use of cochlear implants, devices that essentially install microphones into the inner ear and converts acoustic signals into electrical signals that they send straight to the brain. Cochlear implants are effective at restoring hearing for people with certain types of deafness, but they have their drawbacks. They have to be surgically implanted, for one, and then the sometimes bulky devices hangs out behind the user's ear just waiting to get damaged by the rain or something.
This is why scientists are excited about this new, however, incomplete drug treatment. The drug can bring the ear hair cells back to life, but so far, they're only effective at certain frequencies. More specifically, the mice could only hear really loud noises. "It’s a first step. It needs to be tweaked and improved, but for people who have almost no hearing to get some back [it's a big deal]," said Yehoash Raphael, an otolaryngology professor at the University of Michigan. "[The drug] is probably going to work better than a cochlear implant, which is the solution now, and will improve hearing perceptibly and probably be a blessing for a large number of patients."
Meanwhile, other stem cell solutions are also in the works. Last September, scientists in the United Kingdom successfully restored 50 percent of the hearing in gerbils and said that a full blown cure was only a few years away. Their research is undoubtedly bolstered by the new discovery in Boston, since it targets the elusive hair cells that scientists have been trying to find a way to regrow since the 1980s. Of course, both of these methods only target specific kinds of deafness, and there's a lot of work still to be done. But for the peole who have lived in silence their entire lives, the ability to hear even a stray sound here or there would be a breakthrough.