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The ears play a critical role in hearing and balance. The ears and brain work together to process incoming sound information and maintain balance. Though much is known about how these processes work, scientists have made a recent discovery that illuminates even more information about what happens when we take in sound. Scientists have learned more about the auditory system, identifying a specific protein that enables hearing and balance.
How Hearing Works
The auditory system is how we take in sound and make meaning of what we hear. It involves a complex process carried out by the ears and brain:
- Outer Ear: consists of the most visible part of the ear (known as the pinna or auricle) – the outer cartilage – as well as the ear canal and the ear drum.
- Middle Ear: the eardrum divides the outer and middle ear which houses three connected bones (referred to as the ossicles) in addition to the eustachian tube. This tube connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and is responsible for equalizing pressure levels in the middle ear.
- Inner Ear: is composed of the cochlea which is filled with hair cells and fluid as well as auditory pathways that lead to the brain.
The outer ear collects and absorbs sound from the environment which travels through the ear canal, eventually landing on the eardrum. The movement of the eardrum activates the ossicles which propel the soundwaves further into the inner ear. The hair cells in the inner ear help translate the soundwaves into electrical signals that are then sent to the brain via auditory pathways. The brain is then able to further process and assign meaning to the sound which is what allows us to understand what we hear.
TMC1: Hearing and Balance Protein
Though it was known that the auditory system converts soundwaves into electrical signals for the brain, scientists did not know the specific mechanisms that facilitated this conversion. In other words, it was not clear how exactly the ears change soundwaves into electrical signals.
In 2018, researchers at Harvard School of Medicine made a critical discovery that reveals how this process actually happens. Scientists identified a single protein: TMC1 that is responsible for sending signals for both sound and balance to the brain.
TMC1 are proteins on the membranes of the hair cells in the inner ear. These proteins pair up to form pores which open and close in response to sound. As described by Forbes, this controls “the influx of electrically charged ions, such as calcium and potassium. In this way, electrical signals could be propagated via nerve cells to the brain”. This explains the molecular mechanism that helps us hear and maintain balance, providing greater insight into important bodily processes. TMC1 is a protein that is also found throughout the animal kingdom, among vertebrate species. The conservation of this protein highlights how necessary it is for both hearing and survival. The discovery of TMC1 allows researchers to further investigate how this protein and conversion of soundwaves thoroughly works. This could create more possibilities for hearing loss therapies and interventions.
Protecting Hearing Health
Hearing loss is a pervasive, chronic medical condition that impacts nearly 48 million people. The most common cause of hearing loss is damaged hair cells. These hair cells, unlike other types of cells, do not regenerate so damage is permanent. It is important to practice safety measures to protect your hearing health. A few tips you can integrate into daily life includes:
- Wear hearing protection: there are different types – headphones, earbuds, earmuffs etc. – which reduce the impact of loud noise.
- Reduce exposure to loud noise: in addition to wearing hearing protection, you can maintain low volume levels on electronic devices, avoid noisy environments, choose quieter settings etc.
- Take listening breaks: our ears and brain are constantly absorbing and processing sound. Taking listening breaks throughout the day provides time and space for the auditory system to rest.
- Have your hearing tested: hearing tests involve a noninvasive and painless process that measure hearing capacity in both ears. This identifies any hearing loss, the degree, and specific type. Early intervention can drastically help the transition into better hearing health!
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