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Hungry for more stories on science, culture and technology?Check out Brain Food: Insights and Discoveries from Northern Arizona. From ground breaking scientific research to global music projects, Brain Food profiles some of the unique projects happening in the region and the interesting people behind them. While there are no new episodes of Brain Food, we will continue to maintain the archive here.

Brain Food: Strengthening Cells To Prevent Or Reverse Hearing Loss


Technology is making the world a loud place. Researchers say 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 12 now has at least some hearing deficit. Smart Phones, iPods, video games - even chemicals - are making it worse...stressing out the cells in our ears until they give up their biological instinct to protect themselves. That's why audiologist and molecular biologist O'neil Guthrie hopes to engineer biomedical therapies to amplify the cells' protective mechanisms. 

Guthrie says noise-induced hearing loss is a dramatic event in the body. "What generally happens is the cell commits suicide. And the reason is that there's enough pathological pathways that are up-regulated that the cell decides it's not worth it to survive. It's a process called apoptosis. So, what we want to do is understand that process, and then develop therapies to stop or reverse it in some way."

In his lab at Northern Arizona University, Guthrie conducts various audiological tests on animals to learn more about the cochlea - the auditory part of the inner ear.

"We expose them to noise that people are exposed to", Guthrie says, "so factory workers, police officers, military personnel. Then what we do is measure how the cells in the cochlea work, we measure the neurons that bring information from the cochlea to the brain, then we measure how the brain itself processes that information that it receives from the neuron. So, that's how we're able to characterize the physiological effects in an animal."

Guthrie is in the process of developing drug therapies to repair damaged ear cells and prevent hearing loss. Some day he hopes to produce a pill to take, say, before a construction worker uses a jackhammer, or after you come back from a loud concert.