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Understanding how changes in inner ear supporting cells are involved in age-related hearing loss

Sarah Hool is a PhD student in Professor Walter Marcotti’s lab at the University of Sheffield. Her PhD studentship began in 2021.


Age-related hearing loss is the most common sensory-related health condition in the elderly, leading to the progressive loss of hearing sensitivity and decreased ability to understand speech, especially in a noisy environment. When left untreated, people can become socially isolated and prone to developing depression. Approximately half of adults in their 70’s exhibit hearing loss that is severe enough to affect communication.  

Currently, the only options available to alleviate the symptoms of hearing loss are hearing aids and cochlear implants, which bring benefit to many people, but are unable to restore natural hearing. The major obstacle to developing new treatments for age-related hearing loss is a lack of understanding about why we progressively lose our sense of hearing as we age. Without new research to understand the biological processes that lead to age-related hearing loss, we will not be able to develop effective treatments to prevent or slow its progress, or, ultimately, reverse it. 


Sound is detected by extremely sensitive sensory cells, named hair cells, which are located inside a bony structure called the cochlea in the inner ear. Hair cells, similar to neurons (nerve cells) in the brain, require a lot of energy to work continuously. This energy is provided by nutrients which travel to the ear by way of blood vessels. However, hair cells are situated far from the blood vessels, so that they don’t pick up the sound of blood being pumped through the vessels, and so we don’t hear a constant pulsating noise in our ears. There is therefore an extensive network of conduits that bring nutrients from the blood to the hair cells; this network is formed by specialised non-sensory cells.  

The researchers’ previous work has identified key age-related changes in the way these non-sensory cells operate, which are likely to contribute to age-related hearing loss. In this project, the student will study aged mice that show signs of age-related hearing loss to understand why and how non-sensory cells are involved.  

The student will investigate how the function of non-sensory cells changes during the ageing of the auditory system using state-of-the-art research techniques. They will also look at the impact of genetic changes on how these non-sensory cells work, and hearing as a whole, to understand how they may be linked to age-related hearing loss.  


Currently, there is an urgent need for treatments to slow down or even reverse age-related hearing loss. However, to develop effective treatments, we need to have a better understanding of the genes and molecules involved. This project will identify genes and biological processes that may be directly involved in the development of age-related hearing loss. This information could be used in the future to develop better diagnostic tools and effective treatments for hearing loss.

Page last updated: 22 January 2024

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