Stem cells may help in treating deafness

New method produces sound-sensitive neurons

Human embryonic stem cells can be directed to form sound-detecting nerve cells in the inner ears of deaf gerbils.

A new technique that grows sound-detecting nerve cells (yellow) from embryonic stem cells (green) in the cochleas of deaf gerbils may be helpful in restoring hearing. Blue denotes gerbil cells. Marcelo Rivolta, University of Sheffield

Deafness often results from the loss of specialized nerve cells — called hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons — in the cochlea, the part of the inner ear that converts vibrations into nerve signals the brain understands as sounds. Until now, no one has been able to replace both types of nerve cells.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield in England devised a way to make human embryonic stem cells follow the same steps that sound-detecting nerves take during normal development. When transplanted into the cochleas of deaf adult gerbils, the human cells partially restored the animals’ hearing, the researchers report online September 12 in Nature.

Such cells may one day be used in combination with cochlear implants to treat deafness in people.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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