Scientists at the University of Virginia Health System have helped solve the mystery of how the human ear converts sound vibrations and balance stimuli into electrical impulses the brain can interpret. Their research is detailed in the October 13 advance online edition of the journal Nature, found at www.nature.com/nature .
Neuroscience researchers Jeffrey Holt and Gwenaëlle Géléoc, working in collaboration with scientists elsewhere, discovered a long-sought protein called TRPA1 that is located at the tips of the tiny sensory cells in the inner ear. They found that TRPA1 converts sound into nerve impulses, which are transmitted to the brain. Identification of the protein and the gene that encodes TRPA1, could allow for future treatments for deafness. "This is one of the most significant findings in sensory biology, detailing an ingeniously simple, but remarkably sensitive system," said Holt, an assistant professor of neuroscience and otolaryngology at the U.Va. Health System.
"For hearing researchers, this discovery is the holy grail in understanding the function of both hearing and balance," said Jeffrey Corwin, professor of neuroscience at U.Va. The protein TRPA1 works by forming a channel resembling a donut in the cell membrane of inner ear hair cells. "In the absence of sound, the hole is closed, "Holt explained. "But when sound strikes the protein, the hole pops open like a trap door, allowing potassium and calcium ions to flood into the cells. Because these elements carry a positive charge, an electrical signal is generated which is relayed to the brain for interpretation."
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