Scientists Meet the Consumers

SCIENTISTS MEET THE CONSUMERS.

Yesterday I was the guest speaker at the 14th annual Forum on Hearing and Hearing Loss, co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary Department of Audiology and the Boston Chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

Sharon Kujawa, who originated the event and has organized it for 14 years, is an Associate Professor of Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School, director of the Department of Audiology at Mass Eye and Ear, and Senior Researcher at the Eaton Peabody Laboratories at Mass Eye and Ear. Her lab focuses on noise and age induced hearing loss, and is currently investigating how noise exposure alters the way ears and the auditory system age. By understanding the underlying mechanisms, the lab hopes to develop a drug that could result in treatment or prevention.

Specifically, the Kujawa lab is involved in a biomedical and engineering research partnership that is looking to develop an implanted drug delivery system that could help prevent hearing loss. Given to vulnerable populations — those exposed to unavoidable loud noise, for instance active-duty military, as well as those with a genetic predisposition to hearing loss  — the drug might help offset the effects of the noise exposure.

Dr. Kujawa spoke first. Her talk was a detailed discussion of what we now know about the causes of hearing loss, and about the  underlying systems. She also talked about the lab’s current work. Her talk covered a lot of technical material but it was crystal clear.

I spoke next, about hearing loss from a personal perspective, about the need to educate people about hearing loss, about the general misunderstanding of adult-onset hearing loss (most of us are not Deaf and we don’t use sign language). I also spoke about the need for reforms in Medicare and private insurance, which currently do not cover hearing aids or diagnostic hearing tests. I urged those in the audience to write to their congressional representative and ask for support for HR3150, which would overturn the statute that currently prohibits Medicare from reimbursing for hearing aids or diagnostic hearing tests.

HR 3150 would be an immensely important corrective to the existing policy. The consequences of untreated hearing loss, are enormous — not only personally but on a public health level as well. Untreated hearing loss is strongly associated with depression and isolation (both known risk factors for dementia), anxiety, paranoia, with a three-fold greater risk of falls — and an alarmingly greater correlation with the onset and severity of dementia.

This is a power-point talk that I frequently give to hearing loss groups as well as academic audiences. For a list of upcoming appearances, you can go to my website: katherinebouton.com and look under events. Most are open to the public, and most have multiple kinds of hearing accessibility. CART — simultaneous captioning on a screen on stage — is always available. Many venues are also looped, and sometimes there is an ASL intepreter.

Dr. Charles Liberman was the third speaker. Dr. Liberman is the Harold F. Schulknecht Professor of Otology and Laryngology and Vice Chair of Basic Research in that department, which is part of Harvard Medical School. He and Dr. Kujawa collaborate on much of their work. Dr. Liberman’s current research focuses on noise: “acoustic overexposure.” His talk was also highly technical but also very clear to his mostly lay audience. He discussed the ways the inner ear connects to the brain — through two kinds of sensory neurons and and two neuronal feedback systems — and how those pathways can be affected by noise exposure.

Neither Dr. Kujawa nor Dr. Liberman spoke down to the audience, and the audience members responded with their own detailed technical questions. People with hearing loss are often well versed in the science of hearing loss, and the Mass Eye and Ear annual forums bring cutting edge science to the lay public.

Mass Eye and Ear has made a commitment to sharing its research with the public. Does anyone know if such public forums exist at  other academic hearing centers? It’s a generous gesture from the scientific community to the population their research may eventually benefit.

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