It seems impossible that a tiny creature in the sea could someday be an effective treatment for hearing loss, but one group of researchers says they have all the right stuff. The Center for Hearing and Communication estimates 48 million people in the U.S. have hearing problems and many of them are elderly. Age-related hearing loss affects one in every three people over the age of 65. These are the individuals that will likely benefit from the studies being done on the sea anemones.
What is a Sea Anemone?
Sea anemones are highly predatory and use their tentacles to hunt prey. They withdraw into the body of the animal and then expand when it comes time to catch their next meal. The tentacles also come in handy when the creatures want to move around in the water, although, they tend to remain stationary for weeks at a time.
What do they eat? It turns out they are not very picky when it comes to diet. They will attempt to catch any sea creature that is within reach and the right size.
How the Sea Anemone can Help the Hearing Impaired
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology explains that sea anemone has hair cells that enable them to sense the vibrations in the ocean so they can catch their prey. The design of these hair cells is similar to the ones humans use to hear.
The inner ear consists of a labyrinth structure filled with delicate hair cells that resemble what the sea anemone use to detect vibrations. The hair cells transduce the vibrations of sound into something the brain can understand. Without them, there is no way for you to comprehend what you hear.
The problem with these delicate hair cells in both humans and sea anemones is they can easily break. It is the broken hairs are lead to the kind of hearing loss that people experience as they get older. Decades of listening to sounds around you like your favorite TV show and the local band that plays every weekend takes a toll. The tiny hair cells are damaged over time and hearing gradually diminishes.
For humans, the damage to these hair cells is impossible to fix. The sea anemone, though, has a built-in system that is the key to their survival. Without the hair cells, they cannot detect prey in the area, so they don’t eat. During reproduction, the sea anemones tear their body in two and that breaks the hair cells. Afterward, they cover themselves with mucus that contains a protein to repairs tissue including the hair cells.
The Sea Anemone Study
University of Louisiana biology professor Glen Watson and his colleagues decided to look closer at the healing process of the sea anemone to see if those same repair proteins might work for different species. The researchers used mice in the study because their ears have similar hair cells — called stereocilia — that enable hearing. They destroyed the stereocilia in the test mice and then treated them with repair protein taken from a starlet sea anemone. The result was significant repair of the stereocilia.
Will That Protein Work on Humans?
The study shows that fixing similar hair cells with this protein does work in other animals, specifically the mice used for this research. The problem is mice are not humans. They have proteins that are related to the ones the sea anemones use for repair. People, on the other hand, do not any that connection. For scientists, the next step is to find a way to harness the repair power of the sea anemone using a natural protein or by harvesting something in nature. If successful, they might be able to repair damage to these hair cells and fix hearing loss in humans.
It’s likely that a cure for age-related hearing loss is still years away. This discovery and research are important, though. It proves that some animals have the ability to repair hair cells and, with more study, it might someday work for humans, too.