Accessibility links

Deafness 'Cure' is a Goal for Science

  • Peter Fedynsky

The New York Academy of Medicine recently (October 3) hosted a research summit sponsored by the Hearing Health Foundation to promote a cure for deafness caused by damaged hair cells in the ear. An estimated 37 million Americans suffer some form of hearing loss, including a Broadway composer who is coping with profound deafness.

This clashing and crashing percussion music is the work of Jay Alan Zimmerman, a New York composer with significant hearing loss who has been dubbed "Broadway's Beethoven." The piece, entitled "Roboticus," is about a man who upgrades his natural body with artificial parts to become a robot.

"That is the choice I am facing: Do I get a cochlear implant and become a bionic man? If it gave me better than normal hearing, I would grab it," said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman has no diagnosis for the condition that turned his world into a muddle of sound more than 10 years ago. He supplements that muddle through lip reading. He also relies on light as a complement to his music. Zimmerman says his hearing problem may involve damage to the minute sensors in the ear known as hair cells that transmit audio signals to the brain.

Though the electronic device known as a cochlear implant improves hearing, it does not allow for appreciation of music or all of the richness of sound. Zimmerman prefers to wait for scientists to find a way of regenerating hair cells. Researchers gained a valuable insight from an unexpected source.

Dr. Mark Warchol of the Washington University School of Medicine explains what chickens have brought to hearing research.

"The avian ear has this remarkable ability to regenerate sensory receptors after injury," noted Warchol. "Deafening a bird, for example, turns out to be a very temporary thing. Within several weeks, all of the dead sensory cells, damaged sensory cells, will be replaced by new cells."

Unlike chickens, humans cannot replace sensory cells lost to aging, toxicity or loud noise.

Researchers at this week's Hearing Restoration Project summit at the New York Academy of Medicine noted the human body does have the capacity to restore skin cells, cells in the digestive tract and in a damaged liver. Dr. Andrew Groves of the Baylor School of Medicine says scientists are trying to apply that capacity to more complicated sensory cells.

"You can break the problem down into two simple processes," added Warchol. "One is if you want to repair something, you have to make more cells; the cells have to divide. So understanding what tells a cell to start dividing and then to stop at the appropriate time is really important."

But researchers say that "simple" problem may take 10 years to solve and tens of millions of dollars to fund the effort.

At this point, Jay Alan Zimmerman is declining surgical treatment while he waits for a cure. In the meantime, he says he will continue writing musicals and performing his own compositions for theater.