Integrative Neuroscience

Restoring hearing through biology

Cochlear implants are engineering marvels, but they come at a cost — a hefty price tag, a lengthy training period, and the chance that the implants either won’t work or will destroy remaining hearing in the implanted ear.

Donna Fekete, inaugural director of the Integrative Neuroscience Center and a professor of biological sciences, wants to give people with hearing loss other options, and she’s looking to zebrafish, chicken and mice for some answers. From her laboratory in Lilly Hall, she studies the molecular basis of inner ear development in these three model organisms.

Using direct injection into one-celled zebrafish embryos, Fekete and her team observed that an overexpression of particular microRNAs in zebrafish caused the formation of too many hair cells, the sensory receptors for the auditory system. When microRNAs were repressed, too few hair cells developed.

Once hair cells are gone, they can’t be regenerated in mammals like us. So Fekete, in collaboration with her former postdoctoral student Hainan Lang at the Medical University of South Carolina, is examining whether these special microRNAs can be combined with a known hair-cell promoting gene, Atonal-1, to grow new hair cells in mice. The genes are delivered via viruses into the supporting cells, which remain when hair cells disappear.

“If we could find exactly what would stimulate those hair cells to grow, the restoration of hearing might be much closer to normal than a cochlear implant,” she says.

- Angie Roberts

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