Edward Lundquist, USN (Ret)
engines, aircraft, machinery, and weapons servicemembers regularly use and are
around are loud, painfully loud. So it’s not surprising hearing injuries top
the list of VA medical disability for all servicemembers. (Here are some signs you might need
servicemembers from potential hearing injuries caused by loud noises, the Office of Naval Research’s
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss program
is investigating technologies and approaches to prevent hearing damage and even
Susceptibility to hearing damage
ear cochlear hair cells are exquisitely designed but can be damaged easily by
noise, and they don’t grow back. According to program lead Kurt Yankaskas, a
world-recognized expert in the field of military noise who has a background as
a naval engineer and previously worked in undersea sound detection, research in
the past two years has shown that during an auditory insult, nerve cells are
damaged and withdraw or disconnect from the inner ear hair cells, resulting in
a silent nervous system failure over time.
nerves are damaged, Yankaskas says it can result in the “cocktail party
effect,” which he describes as an inability to discriminate the speaker in a
room where multiple conversations are going on. ONR’s research investment in
nerve regeneration and nerve cell connections is leading the field in many
ways, including how to regenerate both hair and the nerve cells.
identifying new metabolic pathways and genetic markers that can help us
anticipate who would be more susceptible to an auditory injury and how to
protect them,” he says.
susceptibility to hearing damage at the cellular level would help those individuals
to take precautions. “If you have tender ears, you need to go into intense
hearing conservation program, just as somebody with very fair skin needs to use
SPF 50 sunscreen,” Yankaskas says.
mammals can’t regenerate damaged cochlear hair cells, birds and amphibians can.
During human fetal development, proteins are turning on and off the genetic
assembly code, including the formulation of hearing apparatus. “It turns off
when it’s done,” he says. “We’re sponsoring research at St. Jude Children’s
Research Hospital to turn it back on again.”
splicing DNA from a chicken into that of a mouse, researchers were able to show
that damaged hearing apparatus could begin to regenerate. Though there’s much
progress, results will not be immediate. “We were the first to demonstrate
regeneration of hair cells in a live mouse,” Yankaskas says.
says researchers at Harvard University have identified 18 new genes in the past
two years that have an effect on hearing. The genes determine what the cells do
or don’t do. He says ONR is looking into pharmacological approaches and what
compounds and combinations of compounds have a positive effect on those cells
and perhaps help the body be more resilient in the event of an auditory assault.
High-Throughput Screening Center is exploring novel drug treatments that might
have an effect on the inner ear cells, taking advantage of the center’s library
of a half million compounds covering the entire range of known chemicals. Hair
cells are grown in the lab and then exposed to the different compounds to see
which ones show promise for further study.
is a precision-medicine approach can fine-tune the appropriate compounds to be
prescribed for a specific individual.
treat patients, Yankaskas says a “personalized medicine” approach might
identify a particular gene where the formation of a specific protein might
indicate a vulnerability. “We want to learn how to counter the stress caused by
an auditory injury,” Yankaskas says. “We’re trying to outwit Mother Nature, and
it will take us years. But with every year that goes by, we unlock new clues.”
Prevention is key
prevention still is the best medicine. The Navy has invited small businesses
that offer protection from noise but enable the user to have situational
awareness. This is especially important for people who work in dynamic and loud
environments, such as on an aircraft carrier flight deck or in machinery
spaces, and who need to be able to communicate with others and be aware of
what’s happening around them in that same environment.
already suffer from hearing loss and are in need of a hearing aid, the
DoD-sponsored Retiree At-Cost Hearing Aid Program might help with the costs. Learn more about the program.