When you go to a quiet place and listen, what do you hear?

If you said “nothing,” then count yourself fortunate.

Personally, I hear a constant tea-kettle-shrill whistle that varies in volume and tone from day to day. I always hear it. That’s because I have hearing-loss induced tinnitus. It’s not fun. In fact, until you adapt to it, it can make your life a living hell.

My tinnitus was caused by an ear infection that got bad enough to do permanent damage, but I’m often dismayed to see people risking the same symptoms by exposing themselves to loud sounds without ear protection. New research from the University of Leicester shows just how important it is to protect your ears, and may offer some hope of improved hearing to millions of people with hearing loss.

Previous research has shown that when loud sound causes hearing loss the myelin, the coating of the auditory nerve, becomes thinner. This new research provides proof that having thinner myelin slows down the transmission of signals along the nerve.

“This work is a theoretical work whereby we tested the hypothesis that myelin was the prime reason for the decreased signal transmission. We simulated how physical changes to the myelin and/or redistribution of channels influenced the signal transmission along the auditory nerve. We found that the redistribution of channels had only small effect on the conduction velocity whereas physical changes to myelin were primarily responsible for the effects,” said Dr Martine Hamann, Lecturer in Neurosciences at the University of Leicester.

Slower transmission of signals can cause serious problems for hearing loss sufferers.

“Understanding speech relies on fast transmission of auditory signals. Therefore it is important to understand how the speed of signal transmission gets decreased during hearing loss. Understanding these underlying phenomena means that it could be possible to find  medicines to improve auditory perception, specifically in noisy backgrounds,” Hamann said.

Knowing that the loss of myelin contributes to hearing loss means scientists can focus on ways to repair the myelin after acoustic trauma or age-related hearing loss. Treatments one day might  help people with hearing loss better understand speech or reduce their tinnitus.

But you know what? Don’t risk it. Turn the volume down, wear earplugs if you’re going to go somewhere that’s loud. Baby your ears. Take my word for it, just thinking about tinnitus long enough to write this article has my head sounding like a war between angry snakes. It’s better to never get a disease than to get one and hope for a cure.

[Source: University of Leicester]

Image of women with antique ear horn from minorcatastrophes.com


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