Birdsong and High-Frequency Hearing Loss

High-Frequency Hearing Loss Relates to Birds in More Ways Than One

Birdsong and High-Frequency Hearing Loss
Like many people with a hearing loss, a low-grade but nonetheless omnipresent fear hums within me that my hearing will continue to deteriorate to the point of deafness. I was at first flabbergasted, then thrilled to discover recently that scientists across the country have banded together in the Hearing Restoration Project (HRP). The HRP seeks to cure hearing loss in a decade.

Due to a genetic mutation called Connexin 26, my loss in conversational frequencies around middle C is moderate, but as sounds climb in pitch, my high-frequency hearing loss grows more severe, so that for the highest notes on a piano, I am essentially deaf. Yet I am able to play and even perform on the piano, thanks to the latest available hearing aid technology, complete with a music setting.

Perhaps because I only recently found my way back to the piano after a 25-year hiatus, the spectre of deafness now seems to me particularly cruel. Around my 40th birthday, shortly before my first adult piano lesson, I had a yearly checkup with my audiologist. He remarked that, at least for the time being, my hearing was stable.

“Are you worried it might get worse?” I asked him. A terrible question leaked into my thoughts. “Will I go deaf?”

“We can’t chart that out. You’re beginning from a base that’s much lower than the average person. But hopefully not.”

Hopefully not?

Apparently, the hope I’ve been seeking originates from an unexpected place: birds. About 20 years ago, scientists discovered that birds’ inner ears can spontaneously regrow damaged hair cells. Hair cells are those crucial, magical agents that transform sound into electrical impulses, the form of information the brain needs to process sound. Apparently, zebrafish have the same capability.

Now, a team of elite scientists wants to find a way to replicate that regeneration process in humans. The HRP bands together researchers across the country in labs using technologies like stem-cell research and gene mapping. By sharing data and applications, they hope to find a biological cure to hearing loss within a decade.

After I purchased my latest hearing aids a few years ago, the chirps and tweets of birds became much more audible. Sometimes on a morning walk, the songs of birds entranced me. Now, knowing about the revivifying power within their tiny ears, I find birdsong doubly cherished.

The Hearing Restoration Project is an effort of the Hearing Health Foundation. Nancy M. Williams joined the Hearing Health Foundation’s Board of Directors in March of 2012.
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