Supporting biomedical research: A focus on hearing loss

hearing loss

The work of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) in the United States is profiled here, with a focus on their work around helping those with hearing loss, as well as tips to prevent it and their hopes for the future

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) is one of the many parts of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States today. By way of an introduction, it’s important to know that NIH is the federal government’s focus where the support of biomedical research is concerned. In essence, the NIH’s mission is to unveil new knowledge that will result in better health for everybody. In very simple terms, the aim of NIH research is to gain new knowledge to help prevent, detect, diagnose and treat both disease and disability.

It’s very fitting that we’re looking at the work of NIDCD here as they have recently celebrated their 30-year anniversary, established in 1988 and since then they have been supporting research that has led to remarkable discoveries in hearing, balance, smell, taste, speech, voice plus language. Their work has brought into focus disorders of human communication plus an impressive contribution to biomedical and behavioural research that improves and advances the lives of millions of people with communication disorders.1

Advancing research to improve lives

Judith A. Cooper, PhD, acting director of the NIDCD and director of the NIDCD Division of Scientific Programs highlights in a message for this 30th anniversary that at least 20% of adults in the U.S. have a significant impairment where hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech, or language are concerned. In her view, the basic components of communication (sensing, interpreting and responding to their environment) can be challenging for these people.

Let’s now focus on the hearing aspect of NIDCD, indeed, according to Judith, a number of factors contribute to hearing loss, as well as balance dysfunction, which can happen at any age and impact upon communication, safety and the quality of life. In her own words, Judith explains NIDCD’s research aims in this vein, as well as her thoughts on hearing aids and cochlear implant technology.

“The NIDCD’s robust program of basic and clinical research on hearing and balance includes genetics, genomics, and proteomics. This research focuses, in part, on the identification of genes involved in hearing loss to lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment, and to new therapies.

“Nearly 30 million adults in the United States could benefit from using hearing aids, but only one in four has used them. The NIDCD supports innovative clinical and translational research to lay the foundation for making hearing health care more accessible and affordable. Current research includes identifying barriers to care and assessing novel service delivery and screening models.

“Researchers are also applying cochlear implant technology to develop other neural prostheses. These devices will, for example, provide a sense of hearing for people whose auditory nerve is removed or damaged; normalize balance by electrically stimulating the
vestibular nerve; and help patients with severe speech and physical impairments express themselves using speech synthesized from brain-computer interfaces.”

Takings steps to protect your hearing

One initiative to highlight here is the one that took place during October 2018, which was National Protect Your Hearing Month, and at the time, the NIDCD promoted noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) and the steps you can take to prevent it, which we’ll highlight here. One important point in this vein is that sounds that are too loud for too long can damage your hearing permanently, indeed the louder the noise, the quicker it can damage hearing.

Incredibly loud noises can damage your hearing for life, and in just 15 minutes your hearing can be damaged by listening to loud music on headphones or attending
a concert, for example. It’s also worth bearing in mind that lower levels of noise over prolonged periods can also damage human hearing, an instance of which is those working in a noisy yard using farm equipment. The NIDCD also stresses that when sounds are too loud for too long, “tiny bundles of hair-like structures that sit on top of hair cells in the inner ear are damaged.”

The NIDCD provides the following helpful hints to protect your hearing:

  • Reduce the volume. Know which noises can cause damage is important for those at or above 85 decibels. If you use headphones or earbuds, it is vital to ensure that the volume is always low.
  • Move away from the noise. The advice here is that if you are unable to lower the volume, create some distance between you and the source.
  • Wear hearing protectors, such as earplugs or earmuffs, when you’re involved in a noisy activity is very important. This could be done whether you are using power tools, mowing the lawn, playing loud music or attending a loud sporting event or a concert. Activity-specific earplugs and earmuffs can be purchased online and at sporting goods, hardware, as well as other stores.
  • Protect the ears of children who are not old enough to protect their own.
  • Spread the news to your family, friends and colleagues about noise hazards.2

NIDCD-supported research in the future

Looking at the wider picture, we know that NIDCD-supported research also concerns voice, speech, and language impairments linked to stroke, injury and neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. Such communication problems, like aphasia, apraxia and dysarthria frequently lead to a poor quality of life and increased isolation for an individual.

Looking ahead, Judith A. Cooper, PhD, acting director of the NIDCD and director of the NIDCD Division of Scientific Programs paints a picture of a journey towards brand new frontiers in precision medicine and scientific discovery and she believes that the NIDCD is in a very good position to support innovative studies to produce more effective, sensitive, and individually tailored interventions. We leave the closing words of this article with Judith herself who underlines that the NIDCD’s research will expand in the future to help people of all ages who are experiencing the challenges of communication disorders, including, of course, hearing.

“NIDCD-supported researchers are dedicated to expanding our understanding of hearing, balance, taste, smell, voice, speech, and language and improving rehabilitation strategies for children and adults who face the challenges of communication disorders.”3

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