June 2017 Geelong Advertiser

THE soft tinkling laughter of baby Madeleine is new mum Holly Taylor’s favourite sound — one she is grateful to hear after her life was changed 30 years ago. As four-year-old Holly McDonell, she was the first child in the world to receive a commercial cochlear implant after clinical trials of the ­revolutionary device. She had been left profoundly deaf when she contracted bacterial meningitis.

After the pioneering five-hour surgery to put a bionic implant in her left ear, she has enjoyed a world of sound ever since.  “I don’t dare even think about what it was like being deaf as a four-year-old,” corporate lawyer Mrs Taylor, 34, said from her northern beaches home. “The idea of not hearing terrifies me. “Right now, I’m celebrating everything I can hear, from listening to my favourite R & B music loudly in the car to my daughter giggling — it’s the happiest, most beautiful sound in the world. “The implant has allowed me to not live in a bubble of silence, to go to a normal primary school, a selective high school, communicate with my peers and not lead a restrictive social life.

“I was able to follow a career in law, through which I met my husband Jamie.” 

Holly Taylor 

Holly TaylorShe said the past five months since Madeleine was born have been “the most amazing”. “Listening to her every sound has brought the most enormous amount of joy to my life,” she said. “The implant, I’m realising more than ever, truly is a medical miracle.” Mrs Taylor still has the same implant that was inserted 50mm inside her skull on June 4, 1987. “When I turn it off, I hear absolutely nothing — not the sound of a pin drop. And there are times when I do turn if off, like when I want to read a book in silence or concentrate,” she said. “But when it’s on it must be good … I love listening to music so much — Ed Sheeran, John Legend — and the sounds are crystal clear.” With a chuckle, she adds: “I could turn it off when ­Madeleine cries too much, but of course I wouldn’t. “I’m just so happy to hear every sound she makes and watch her development. I’ve led a full and happy life because of what was considered pioneering surgery at the time. I would want the same for Madeleine.”

July 2017 MedicalXpress

A team of hearing experts at Duke University School of Medicine and the Duke Global Health Institute is calling for a comprehensive, worldwide initiative to combat hearing loss. The percentage of people worldwide with hearing loss has been on the rise, increasing from 14 percent to 18 percent over the past 25 years. Recent data estimate half a billion people worldwide have moderate to severe hearing losses. "The trend is ever-upward, despite many efforts that have been mounted worldwide to rein in the growing burden of hearing loss," said Blake Wilson, adjunct professor in the department of surgery at Duke. "Thus far, those efforts have not put a dent in the problem's growth and so something more is needed."

The issue is one some U.S. lawmakers have recently acknowledged. For example, a proposal introduced in the House of Representatives in March calls for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to increase accessibility to some hearing aids by allowing them to be sold over-the-counter.

Such measures hint at the scope of the problem. In a review article in The Lancet, Wilson and colleagues highlight accessibility to screenings, treatments and preventive measures as keys to stemming the rise of hearing loss not only in the United States, but across the world. They also offer VISION 2020, the global campaign launched by the World Health Organization and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness in 1999 to eliminate avoidable blindness by 2020, as a model for a global hearing loss initiative. "Efforts to combat hearing loss have not been particularly well-coordinated on a global scale," Wilson said. "That is why the VISION 2020 partnership offers a compelling template for a similar program for hearing. It would provide a focus for support and facilitate the needed efforts."

The authors suggest that the initiative could tap into resources at global health institutes and centres at universities. Howard Francis, Chief of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery & Communication Sciences at Duke, hopes that Duke can take the lead in reducing the burden of hearing loss globally. "The call to action in this article provides a watershed opportunity in the history of hearing health by presenting a feasible roadmap to marshal disparate global endeavours into a coordinated and effective strategy," Francis said. "Duke's legacy of successful collaborations in global health, biomedical engineering and clinical research equips us to serve as a valuable partner with other stakeholders in this global initiative."

Like the proponents of the hearing aid proposal in Congress, the authors emphasise the need to improve access to treatments for hearing loss, particularly through the use of low-cost, tech-savvy interventions. In their report, they highlight recommendations from prior research they believe could be particularly effective if implemented, including:

  • Reducing treatment costs by using smartphones for hearing assessments, assisted-hearing devices and telemedicine, particularly in low- and middle-income countries;

  • Increasing access to immunisations in low- and middle-income countries for diseases that cause hearing loss;

  • Increasing awareness about damagingly loud sounds from headphones and a multitude of other sources, particularly in middle- and high-income countries.

"These actions are relatively inexpensive and they show that unprecedented opportunities are available to increase access to hearing health care worldwide," Wilson said.

July 2017 The Augusta Chronicle

As she slices through the water at Augusta Aquatic Centre, Kristin Ates can’t hear a sound. The same drive and endurance that fuelled her as a top deaf swimmer is now pushing her on to a career as a physician scientist through her studies at Augusta University and elsewhere. 

Kristin Ates Ates, 26, has completed her first two years as a student at Medical College of Georgia and is working on her doctorate there and with her advisor, Dr. Albert Pan. She is exploring a very rare genetic mutation discovered in one patient at the National Institutes of Health Undiagnosed Disease Program and has created a model of it in a laboratory animal called a zebrafish that will allow her now to study the protein involved more in depth. 

“That took a lot of patience just trying to generate a new animal model,” Ates said. “Now we’re at the point where we can actually do experiments with them.” It also put Ates in touch with a medical geneticist, a physician scientist as she aspires to be, that could also provide a role model for the kind of career she might like to have. “I thought his job was really cool because he was the one meeting these patients and trying to treat them,” she said. “He also showed this connection with the basic science mode and all he needs to do on the Ph.D side to research a new mutation.”

In a similar way, Ates has been shaped both by her clinical experience as a child growing up with profound hearing loss and an early love for swimming she got from her family. She was born with hearing loss but could compensate with hearing aids and had an interpreter help her in school. After her brother, who had a similar hearing loss, seemed to do so much better with a cochlear implant, she decided at age 11 to get one, too. And when they first switched it on, she did not like it. When “people started talking, they all sounded like chipmunks,” Ates said. “They just really had this high-pitched voice and I hated it. I was like, is this what I have gotten myself into?” It would take a lot of hard work and speech therapy and adjustments over time to get to a range she was comfortable with. It is those experiences that she thinks will shape her when she is the one treating patients. “Just coming from that perspective, I can understand how long it may take to work with patients and having patience with them,” Ates said.

Patience might be an odd thing to expect from someone used to moving so fast in the water.

The family, first on the Gulf coast of Mississippi and then in Charlotte, was always around the water and swimming just came naturally for her from a very young age. Ates proved to be very good at it – she won two gold medals at the 2007 World Deaf Swimming Championships in Taiwan, and another as part of the team that set a world record in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the 2011 World Deaf Swimming Championships in Portugal. In an interview, she mentions only that she competed at these games and not her accomplishments and later adds that she doesn’t usually talk about her medals unless asked. She was raised in public schools and always had hearing friends so the games were a chance to be around a lot of other deaf athletes. “I wasn’t exposed to deaf culture that much,” Ates said. “So those trips were interesting to actually see more of that.”

Those early experiences may have helped shaped her in other ways, making her more visually oriented and more observant, which might help her as a researcher and scientist. With eight years total to become a physician scientist, a journey she is only halfway through, her family tells her to fall back on her experience as a long-distance swimmer.

July 2017 Bel Marra Health

Most of us have heard about how early infancy offers the best window of opportunity for sensory learning, including sound and other forms of stimulation. We have also been exposed to the notion that as we age, it is common to have difficulty learning. Now a new study is suggesting that it’s possible to reverse old brain so that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Many people have said that learning to speak a new language or play a new musical instrument is harder as they get older. There has always been an assumption that the brain’s ability to distinguish between sounds declines over time; however, recent research seems to indicate that we can start reversing old brain by using genetic tools or drugs.

Researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee have discovered that levels of the chemical adenosine increase in the part of the brain responsible for sensory processing as mice get older. As a result, learning is impaired. When the old mice are played two tones that are similar in pitch, they are not able to distinguish between the two sounds. However, when genetic tools or drugs are applied to reduce adenosine signalling, the mice are able to tell the difference between the sounds. It is as if there is suddenly a restoring of brain function. 

reversing brain During the study, the researchers exposed old mice to constant background noise and then they played a slightly different tone in addition. The new sound startled the mice, thus demonstrating they were able to distinguish it from the background noise. When adenosine signalling was blocked, the research team could see that there was an increase in the number of neurons that responded to sound. This is a process called neuroplasticity. Researcher Jay Blundon has said if neuroplasticity and tone discrimination could be enhanced in older people, it just might be easier for them to learn new skills. Blundon believes that training the brain and improving auditory plasticity could also be helpful in situations where a person has suffered from a stroke or tinnitus. His theory is that different auditory neurons could be trained to take over the role of those destroyed by a stroke, or to replace those that have become hyperactive as a result of tinnitus. Tinnitus is a condition characterised by hearing sound when in fact no external sound is present.

Some doctors in Australia are familiar with the St. Jude findings and have suggested that they could be applied to people with cochlear implants. Adults tend to adapt slowly to the devices, but experts at the University of New South Wales in Australia are wondering if adenosine can be targeted to speed up the adaptation process. While all of this sounds promising, Blundon and his research team admit that they are not ready for human studies just yet. Right now there is investigation underway to determine whether there are ways to specifically control adenosine so clinical treatments can be developed. Despite the fact that human tests are not yet on the horizon, those who work in the field of neurology and biology are encouraged by this latest discovery. They know that this could be the first step in helping our older population develop better learning skills, and being able to learn new skills later in life could be empowering for many people.