A small striped fish is helping scientists understand what makes people susceptible to a common form of hearing loss, although, in this case, its not the fishs ears that are of interest. In a study published on February 29 in the open-access journal PLoS Genetics, researchers at the University of Washington have developed a research method that relies on a zebrafishs lateral linethe faint line running down each side of a fish that enables it to sense its surroundingsto quickly screen for genes and chemical compounds that protect against hearing loss from some medications. The study was funded in part by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), one of the National Institutes of Health.
The fishs lateral line contains sensory cells that are functionally similar to those found in the inner ear, except these are on the surface of the fishs body, making them more easily accessible, said James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the NIDCD. This means that scientists can very efficiently analyze the sensory structures under different conditions to find out what is likely to cause damage to these structures and, conversely, what can protect them from damage.
When people are exposed to some antibiotics and chemotherapy agents, the sensory structures in the inner ear, called hair cells, can be irreversibly damaged, resulting in hearing loss and balance problems. These are known as ototoxic medications. People vary widely in their susceptibility to these agents as well as to damage caused by other chemical agents, loud sounds and aging.
To find out why this is so, senior scientists Edwin Rubel, David Raible, and their research team developed a screening strategy that uses hair cells in the lateral line of zebrafish larvae to signal how hair cells in a persons inner ear might respond under similar conditions. Hair cells are named for small bristly extensions, or stereocilia, jutting from their tops. Mov
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