By studying a gene earlier linked to deafness in humans, researchers now have new insight into the molecular process by which components of the inner ear send messages to the brain. The team reports its findings in the October 20, 2006, issue of the journal Cell, published by Cell Press.
The researchers found that mice lacking the gene otoferlin are profoundly deaf. The animals' deafness results from an inability to translate sound stimulation into the release of a chemical nerve messenger, or neurotransmitter, that would usually pass that information to auditory nerves and on to the brain, they reported. The sensory structures within the mutant animals' ears otherwise appeared to develop normally.
"Study of the genes responsible for deafness can bring new insight into the molecular basis of how hearing works," said Christine Petit of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France.
The sensory machinery within the inner ear is particularly intriguing, she added, "in the sense that it operates with extreme temporal precision."
In mammals, the hearing organ, or cochlea, is a snail-shaped structure of the inner ear that is filled with a watery fluid. When that liquid moves in response to sound vibrations, thousands of sensory "hair" cells are set into motion.
Those sensory receptors come in two types: inner and outer hair cells. Outer hair cells amplify sound within the cochlea, allowing for hearing sensitivity. In contrast, inner hair cells are "the genuine sensory cells transmitting information on the temporal structure and intensity of sound to the central nervous system," Petit said.
While outer hair cell defects can lead to considerable hearing loss, she added, a loss of inner hair cell function results in total deafness as messages cannot get through.
Inner hair cells operate in a manner comparable to neurons, she said. When an inner hair cell is stimulated, channels open up allowing calcium to flow in. In turn
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