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Researchers discover primary role of the olivocochlear efferent system
Date:3/29/2013

New research from the Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School and Harvard Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology may have discovered a key piece in the puzzle of how hearing works by identifying the role of the olivocochlear efferent system in protecting ears from hearing loss. The findings could eventually lead to screening tests to determine who is most susceptible to hearing loss. Their paper is published today in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Until recently, it was common knowledge that exposure to a noisy environment (concert, iPod, mechanical tools, firearm, etc.), could lead to permanent or temporary hearing loss. Most audiologists would assess the damage caused by this type of exposure by measuring hearing thresholds, the lowest level at which one starts to detect/sense a sound at a particular frequency (pitch). Drs. Sharon Kujawa and Charles Liberman, both researchers at Mass. Eye and Ear, showed in 2009 that noise exposures leading to a temporary hearing loss in mice (when hearing thresholds return to what they were before exposure) in fact can be associated with cochlear neuropathy, a situation in which, despite having a normal threshold, a portion of auditory nerve fibers is missing).

The inner ear, the organ that converts sounds into messages that will be conveyed to and decoded by the brain, receives in turn fibers from the central nervous system. Those fibers are known as the olivocochlear efferent system. Up to now, the involvement of this efferent system in the protection from acoustic injury although clearly demonstrated has been a matter of debate because all the previous experiments were probing its protective effects following noise exposures very unlikely to be found in nature.

Stephane Maison, Ph.D., investigator at the Eaton-Peabody Laboratory at Mass. Eye and Ear and lead author, explains. "Humans are currently exposed to the type of noise used in those experiments but it's
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Contact: Mary Leach
Mary_Leach@meei.harvard.edu
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary
Source:Eurekalert

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