Listen up! Fruit Flies Key to Hearing Loss Research

During a routine annual check-up at Bethesda Naval Hospital, President Bill Clinton received encouraging news from his doctor: his cholesterol count was significantly reduced, and he had shed nearly 20 pounds of body fat. However, he was disappointed to learn that his life-long hearing problems had worsened, requiring the use of hearing aids. Even today, his hearing continues to deteriorate (Broder, 1997).

[“Decibel Chart” by Sara Shore from Photobucket]

Over 40 million Americans, major celebrities and average Joes alike, suffer from hearing loss. Most can improve their hearing by wearing auditory aids. For roughly 10 million people, however, their hearing loss is irreversible and irreparable (“Dangerous Decibels,” 2014).

What causes hearing loss?

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is largely responsible for irreversible hearing damage. NIHL can be caused by a one-time exposure to a loud sound or continued exposure to high-decibel noises. How loud is loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss? For comparison, a normal conversation is measured at around 6o decibels (an acceptable acoustical range), while a gunshot close to your head can measure upwards of 190 decibels. A noise this loud can result in immediate and permanent hearing impairment (“Dangerous Decibels,” 2014).

Where Do Fruit Flies Come Into Play?

Auditory organ of the fruit fly, seen with fluorescent cell markers [Collected by Madhuparna Roy and Sarit Smolikove, modified by Daniel Eberl]

Researchers at the University of Iowa are now turning to the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) to study and combat NIHL in humans. The fruit fly is the ideal animal model because the molecular structure of its ear is more similar to humans than that of rats or guinea pigs, meaning tests on fruit flies yield more accurate results.

Daniel Eberl, a professor of biology at the University of Iowa, explains that “fruit flies allow extraordinary efficiency” in terms of the numbers of animals that can be tested and the relatively low cost to maintain them (Galluzzo, 2013). In a study conducted by Eberl, researchers exposed one half of the fruit flies to a 120 decibel tone (equivalent to a human’s exposure at a rock concert) that over-stimulated their auditory system. The other half of the fruit flies were exposed to a series of song pulses at a lower, but nonetheless detrimental volume.

The two groups experienced different results: the ears of the fruit flies exposed to the louder tone were still impaired a week after the experiment was conducted — the same amount of time it took for the flies exposed to the song pulses to recover. The effect on the molecular underpinnings of the fruit fly’s ear is similar to that experienced by humans. (“Hearing Loss,” 2014). These results show strikingly similar characteristics between the ear of fruit fly and the human and can possibly lead to treatment for NIHL in the future.

Hear! Hear!

Who could imagine that a breakthrough based on fruit fly research could some day render hearing aids obsolete? And the good news is that millions of Americans, from Bill Clinton to your next-door neighbor, stand to benefit when hearing loss is no longer an occupational hazard or a natural outcome of aging.

[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]

[Graphic by Staff Illustrator]

In Brief

  • Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) affects over 4o million Americans of all ages.
  • There is currently no treatment for NIHL as scientists are just beginning to understand the causes of the disease.
  • Fruit flies have ears with similar molecular structures to that of humans.
  • Researchers at the University of Iowa have confirmed that the fruit fly is an optimal model to study NIHL.

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw28. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

cYw28

Author: cYw28

Hello users of the interweb! Welcome to the curiousYOUNGwriters website! I am currently a junior in high school and this is my first year of writing for cYw. In my high school, I am a member of our Science Academy, which seeks to infuse science writing and the scientific method into our core studies. These experiences have certainly provided me with the necessary tools to create this post as an effective science writer. My passion for the STEM fields is unmatched and I aspire to pursue business and engineering as majors in college and possible careers further into the future. Writing for cYw has been a one-of-a-kind experience that I hope to continue to be a part of in the forthcoming years. I encourage you to leave a comment down below and share your thoughts or questions regarding the article.

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26 Comments

  1. It surprises me that so many people have lost their hearing, and we are now discovering ways to better hearing technology. 40 million people have fallen to NIHL in America, that’s almost 13.3% of the population. I agree that it could be caused by aging, but could this also be a side effect of listening to music on high decibel level? The younger generation has become accustomed to listening to music on loud volumes, compared to older generations who have experienced this type of noise exposure. Do you feel that NIHL in America could increase exponentially in the near future due to this high level of noise volume. Hopefully the fruit fly will help advance hearing loss research in the future.

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    • Hearing loss can be caused in a number of different ways. Hearing loss from aging is irreversible, meaning that hearing aids will do little to help them. Hearing loss can also be caused by listening to music through ear buds (at a high level) for a prolonged period of time. Listening to a 3 minute song once in a blue moon will likely not have an long term effects. In regards to your second question, I do fear that NIHL has yet to hit its climax; millions more will likely fall to hearing loss within the next decade. To look at it statistically, in 2011, around 10 million people suffered from hearing loss in the UK, or about 1 out of every 6 people. That number is expected to grow by nearly 50 percent by 2031. Read more at: http://www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk/your-hearing/about-deafness-and-hearing-loss/statistics.aspx

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    • I find it a bit odd that fruit flies were chosen to have the most similar ear structure to humans. Wouldn’t a more logical choice be to test chimpanzees and other types of monkeys, whom we evolved from? Not to mention the fact that monkeys would be significantly easier to test given that we can actually inspect their ears on a bigger scale.

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  2. Interesting read, cYw28!

    Hopefully there will be a break through in the study of hearing loss before all those years of listening to our iPods too loud catches up with us.

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    • Thanks Julie Vagnini for taking the time to read my article! I too hope that there will be a break through in hearing loss research in the near future. Many of my family members need to use hearing aids everyday, and it can be a struggle to just have a simple conversation with them. This research has the potential to help families across America, including my own.

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  3. Great article! My Grandfather has suffered from hearing loss for as long as I have known him. He has hearing aids, but they do not allow him to hear at nearly the same level as someone who does not suffer from hearing loss. I was wondering how long it could be until the research on fruit flies leads to a solution applicable to humans? It seems as though all the scientists know is that the fruit flies have similar ear structure to humans, but what will they be able to do to use this knowledge and form it into a functioning product that will be able to help millions of people with hearing loss? Also, do you have any idea what the time table will be?

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    • Great question heartofalion, I was hoping someone would ask this! I also have family members that suffer from hearing loss, so this is quite personal for me. Interestingly, at about the same time I finished writing this article, Stanford University’s initiative to cure hearing loss was in full swing. I have a feeling that these brilliant and innovative researchers will have a working solution within a decade. This may seem like an eternity from now, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.
      I encourage you to watch their video on the future of hearing: https://hearinglosscure.stanford.edu/2014/06/video-the-future-of-hearing-exploring-the-challenges-and-possibilities/

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  4. Interesting blog and very informative. Who would have thought that the fruit fly has a similar molecular structure to that of humans. When I studied the effects of noise on people and a specific class of the working population, we learned about the acute and chronic Impact noise, at certain decibel levels, will generate on hearing. This repeated exposure coupled with normal hearing degradation, it is a wonder that many of us still have any natural (unaided) hearing later in our lives. It is certainly good to know that through these studies science and engineering can find ways to abate the possibility of hearing loss or find ways to correct his problem for those who exacerbate this normal deterioration as a result of occupational exposures.

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    • I agree with you, Paul. It is a tragedy that people can lose one of their key senses as a part of their job, and have it be written off as an occupational hazard. Fruit fly research along with other current studies may provide a cure for hearing loss. That will certainly be a momentous day!

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  5. Hello, cYw28.

    Good job … a fascinating connection between humans and fruit flies that I did not know about. Keep reporting on breakthroughs like this.

    Alan

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  6. Thank you for posting this very interesting article. I had no idea that fruit fly ears are more similar in structure to humans’ than rodent ears are!

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    • They certainly are! This development can lead to wondrous possibilities in hearing loss research!

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  7. Who knew that fruit flies could hold the answer to NIHL. Great job on the article!!!

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    • How fascinating that the fruit fly is an optimal animal-model having relevance and benefiting research in human hearing loss. NIHL affects all segments of the population but alarmingly the very young are victims of this silent disability. Many teenagers are increasingly and unsuspectingly risking hearing loss due to excessive noise exposure from blasting music through earbuds or headphones. Just as disturbing is the reality that very young kids are experiencing NIHL. Significant contributors of NIHL in this age group are toys and video games.
      The effects of hearing loss extend beyond merely not being able to hear well. I recently read an article that reports that hearing loss may hasten mental impairment. It is known that the brain atrophies as we age, but the loss of brain volume in older adults with hearing loss is fast-tracked when compared to their peers with normal hearing. The article mentions that those with diminished hearing had a reduction of an additional cubic centimeter of brain tissue each year compared with those with normal hearing! Would kids avoid loud noises and protect their hearing if they were aware that NIHL directly causes brain shrinkage?
      Your article on NIHL is very interesting. The research being conducted at the University of Iowa using the fruit fly will hopefully advance both the understanding of NIHL processes and the development of accepted treatments to lessen human noise damage.

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      • You bring up a lot of interesting points, and I couldn’t agree with you more. In a famous quote by Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf, she said, “blindness separates people from things;
        deafness separates people from people.” It is true that hearing loss affects much more than one’s ability to hear; in infants, it can affect how they develop mentally and in seniors, it can affect them socially because hearing loss leads to isolation. I wasn’t aware, however, that hearing loss could actually cause brain shrinkage! I certainly agree that it people were aware of the effects of loud noises, they would undoubtedly stray away from them, yet this is true for most anything. One of the largest problems in preventing hearing loss before it starts is user education. I’m positive that if everyone was aware of the harmful long term effects of NIHL, they would make conscious efforts to avoid its consequences.

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    • Thanks Marilyn for your positive comment! Fruit fly research is just the tip of the iceberg. More and more scientists are devoting their research to find a cure to NIHL. In fact, in the recent past, a device was invented that partially restored hearing loss in children born deaf. This device is actually likely to receive the Nobel Prize next year because it is the first aid that has replaced a human sense. The future for hearing loss research is bright!

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  8. That was a very informative read! The fact that NIHL can be replicated in flies is instrumental in its research, as flies reproduce quickly. Did you know that in 30 years, you can produce about 800 generations of flies? It would take about 200 years to reach that amount of rats! Hopefully this research provides insight to the cure for NIHL. If someone is to be exposed to a noise loud enough to damage his or her ears, is it possible to counteract those effects through blocking all noise for a prolonged period of time?

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    • Wishful thinking Mr. Dalpo, however it is not that simple. That is similar to saying, if someone is blind, than they could regain their sight by not opening their eyes for a couple of weeks. The only way to cure hearing loss is on the molecular level. Permanent hearing loss is caused by a lack of hair cells in the cochlea (part of the inner ear). Stem cell therapy, which is the best hope for a cure, aims to use stem cells to regrow the lost hair cells. Researchers feel that a cure and a device for implementation can be found within the next few years.

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  9. Nice article! Concise, to the point, and informative. The fruit fly research “sounds” promising.

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    • Thanks for your feedback, Jose! Fruit fly research does indeed “sound” promising!

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  10. This is amazing! Its great that we are able to to study NIHL using fruit flies. This will lead to many discoveries. Great article!

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    • I sincerely hope that fruit flies will provide the answer to hearing loss research. I’ll keep you posted!

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  11. Great article and helpful information. Thank you for sharing with us.

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  12. Very interesting stuff. Who would have thought fruit flies could be useful to humans with regards to hearing loss. Very well written piece

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