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Breakthrough improves hearing in those with ear implants

Teresa Tanoos's picture
New technique boosts hearing using cochlear implants

In a breakthrough method, researchers have developed a new technique that could improve hearing in people with ear implants by using a cochlear implant to deliver gene therapy, facilitating the regeneration of auditory nerves.

Not only could this first-of-its-kind technique improve hearing for people with ear implants, but it also shows promise for potentially treating a variety of neurological and psychiatric disorders as well.

Details about the breakthrough are published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, where researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia report that it’s been long known that if neurotrophins (naturally occurring proteins that aid the development of neurons) are delivered to the cochlea of the ear, it enables the regrowth of auditory nerve endings.

Until recently, however, researchers have been unable to successfully deliver neurotrphins to the cochlea safely by using viral-based gene therapy or drug delivery.

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This prompted the team from UNSW to explore the possibility of delivering gene therapy by using cochlear implants, which are surgically implanted devices that can electronically boost hearing in individuals who have impaired hearing.

By using electrical pulses from the cochlear implants to deliver gene therapy to cells close to the devices, the cells were enabled to generate neurotrophins; thus, stimulating the regrowth of auditory nerves.

Senior study author Prof. Gary Housley, of the Translational Neuroscience Facility at UNSW, said that the newly discovered technique can help those with cochlear implants enjoy a wider range of “dynamic and tonal range of sound”, which he says is especially important as it pertains to helping them better appreciate music.

Another benefit of this breakthrough technique, reported the researchers, is that it would only add a few minutes to cochlear implant procedures performed in the future.

In addition to treating hearing loss, the technique also holds promise for treating other health conditions, including depression and Parkinson’s disease, by applying the technique to other devices, such as electrodes used in deep brain stimulation to deliver “safe, directed gene therapy.”

SOURCE: Close-Field Electroporation Gene Delivery Using the Cochlear Implant Electrode Array Enhances the Bionic Ear, DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3008177, Gary Housley et al., published in Science Translational Medicine, April 23, 2014.