The results were surprising: Instead of being on the tallest rows of stereocilia, like scientists previously thought, Ricci's team found ion channels only on the middle and shortest rows.
Ion channels on hair cells not only convert mechanical vibrations into signals for the brain, but they also help protect the ear against sounds that are too loud. Through a process called adaptation, the ear adjusts the sensitivity of its ion channels to match the noise level in the environment. Most people are already familiar with this phenomenon, Ricci said, though they might not realize it. "If you watch TV in bed and you have the sound turned down low, you can hear fine when you're going to sleep," he said. "But then when you get up in the morning and turn on the news, you have to turn the volume up."
That's because at night, when everything is quiet, the ear turns up its amplifier to hear softer sounds. "But when you get up in the morning," Ricci said, "and the kids are running around and the dog is barking, the ear has to reset its sensitivity so you can hear in noisier conditions without hurting your ear."
Defects in the ear's adaptation process put people at risk for both age-related and noise-related hearing loss. Understanding adaptation is a fundamental step in preventing hearing loss, said Robert Jackler, MD, the Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor in Otorhinolaryngology at Stanford.
"Many forms of hearing loss and deafness are due to disturbances in the molecular biology of the hair cell," said Jackler, who was not involved in the study. "When you understand the nuts and bolts of how the hair cell works, you can understand how it goes wrong and can set about learning how to fix it."
The study was funded by grants from
|Contact: Tracie White|
Stanford University Medical Center