Study: Temporary Hearing Loss Is Protective

Exposed to very loud sounds, the inner ears of mice secreted a hormone that caused temporary hearing impairment but also protected their ears from further damage.
1117324684_cf14080982_o570.jpg
Yuliya Libkina/Flickr

PROBLEM: We're always told that turning the volume up too high or standing too close to speakers is going to permanently damage our hearing, and that once there's ringing or temporary hearing loss it means we've done permanent damage. Why does that happen, really?

METHODOLOGY: Australian researchers interested in ways our ears may have adapted to accommodating loud sounds bred mice lacking a specific gene receptor thought to be involved in protecting the inner ear. They then exposed them to sustained periods of moderately loud noise while measuring their loss of hearing sensitivity (by monitoring brain responses).

RESULTS: The regular mice, like humans, had worsened hearing for about 12 hours after hearing the high-decibel sound. The genetically modified breed meanwhile experienced far less temporary hearing loss. However, in the experiments where the sound was loudest, the latter experienced more permanent damage to their ears.

IMPLICATIONS: The researchers were able to demonstrate that when sound levels rise, the inner ear releases a hormone that binds to a receptor that was missing in the genetically modified mice. In normal circumstances, this reduces the amount of sound transmitted by the ear's hair cells, causing our hearing sensitivity to worsen for a while. During that time, we might be less able to hear a pin drop, but we are more able to tolerate louder-than-usual sound without damaging our ears. The mechanism appears to be "otoprotective" (oto meaning ear). Loud music can be damaging, but having temporary ringing or deafness tells us the damage could be worse.


"ATP-gated ion channels mediate adaptation to Q:4 elevated sound levels" is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In