Scientists at Harvard Medical School recently identified the protein that plays a critical role in hearing and maintaining balance: TMC1. This discovery illuminates more information about the process of hearing and paves the way for research into new therapies and treatments for hearing loss.
Understanding How Hearing Works
It is helpful to first understand what scientists and hearing health experts have long understood about how the auditory system – the sensory system for hearing – works. The ears and brain work together to absorb and process sound and this process include:
- Outer ear: the most visible part of the ear, the outer cartilage, absorbs sound from the environment and funnels this sound through the ear canal and onto the eardrum.
- Middle ear: this triggers the ossicles – three small bones that are connected – which helps propel the soundwaves into the inner ear.
- Inner ear: the thousands of hair cells in the cochlea receive these soundwaves and convert them into electrical signals.
These signals then get carried to the brain through the auditory nerve. The brain is then able to further process these signals and assign meaning to them which enables us to understand what we hear.
The part that remained unclear is exactly how hair cells in the inner ear convert incoming sound waves into electrical signals. Scientists did not previously know about the molecular mechanisms that make this conversion possible. They knew that there are proteins on the membranes of these hair cells and these proteins make tiny pores that respond to sound by opening and closing. This manages the influx of electrically charged ions which helps electrical signals reach the brain through nerve cells. But what they didn’t know is the exact protein that facilitated this process, until now.
TMC1: the Hearing and Balance Protein
Researchers have discovered that TMC1 is the protein that enables the process of converting soundwaves into electrical signals. Though TMC1 was first discovered in a 2002 study, its exact role in hearing was still unclear. Then in 2011, another study revealed that the protein was essential for the process of hearing but its exact mechanisms were unknown. In this newer study, Harvard researchers isolated TMC1 and thoroughly examined its structure.
They discovered that TMC1 proteins combine to form pores on the membranes of hair cells. To understand how this works, researchers created a model of what the protein likely looks like (based on other membrane-bound proteins). A protein is made with a chain of amino acids and to know how TMC1 functions, they altered each amino acid in mice and evaluated how each change of amino acid impacted the flow of ions through the pores in response to sound.
Through this, researchers realized that this protein is essential to how sound waves are converted into electrical signals. This discovery illuminates more information about the TMC1 gene which is one of the numerous genes that is linked to genetically caused hearing loss. With greater information about TMC1, researchers are better equipped to study sound-to-signal conversion which is a critical step in the process of hearing. This can inform the development of new therapies and treatments for hearing loss related to the TMC1 gene.
Prioritize Your Hearing Health
Hearing loss is one of the most common medical conditions people experience today. Taking the steps to protect your hearing contributes to greater health and wellness. A great way to do this is to have your hearing assessed regularly. Hearing tests are conducted by hearing healthcare specialists and are noninvasive. This process involves measuring hearing capacity in each ear and this identifies any hearing loss as well as the degree of impairment. Once your hearing needs are established, your hearing healthcare provider can recommend a treatment plan that best meets those needs.
The most common treatment for hearing loss is hearing aids – medical devices that are designed to absorb, amplify, and process sound. This provides the auditory system with ample support which maximizes an individual’s hearing capacity. Treating hearing loss offers countless life-changing benefits including strengthening communication, improving relationships, encircling social life, and enhancing overall health. Call us today to schedule an appointment for a hearing consultation. Our practice is invested in supporting your hearing health journey.