'Volume Control' Ear Protein Uncovered

The nAChR protein found on sensory hair cells in the ear has been found to be a 'volume control' for the hearing system. It is part of a system that allows the ear to turn itself down to protect against permanent hearing loss.

To get a better handle on this sound-limiting system in the ear, the research team built on previous findings in the field and focused their efforts on the nAChR protein found on so-called sensory hair cells in the ear. Nerve cells from the brain release signals that are picked up by nAChR and turn down these sensory hair cells.

The team genetically altered a single building block in the nAChR protein and tested mice for their ability to hear. "This point mutation was designed to produce a so-called gain of function in which the inhibitory effect of ACh should be greater than normal," says Fuchs.

The altered mice were less able to hear soft sounds than normal mice, showing that the genetic alteration made in the nAChR protein did indeed further "turn down" the ear. The team then asked if the alteration in nAChR, and therefore the improved sound-blocking ability of these altered mice, also could protect from sound damage.

After blasting mice with 100-decibel sound, mice with the altered nAChR suffered less permanent hearing damage compared to normal mice. One of the study's authors, Paul Fuchs, Ph.D., professor of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and co-director of the Center for Sensory Biology at the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at Johns Hopkins, commented that there was "a real chance of finding ear-specific drugs in the future."

Writer Larry Niven remarks on this ability in his 1966 novel World of Ptavvs (I don't know if it was present in the novella published in 1965):

As he left the elevator Luke met the usual continuous roar. He waited ten seconds while his ears "learned" to ignore it; an essential mechanism, learned by most children before they were three.

Here's another quote from A Gift From Earth (1968):

The noise hit them as they opened the door. Matt stood still while his ears adjusted to the noise level - a survival trait his ancestors had developed when Earth's population numbered nineteen billion, even as it did that night, eleven point nine light-years away.

Via Eurekalert; thanks to an anonymous reader for pointing out the article and the sf connection (I hope I found the one you mentioned). Also, see another hundred or so ideas and inventions from the mind of Larry Niven.

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