Who knew that one of nature’s most annoying creations, the fly, could actually have some use? Researchers have recently found that the fly might have genetic possibilities that allow us to hold off, or even completely stop, age-induced hearing loss in humans.
However, it was recently discovered that by studying these pesky creatures, we might be able to slow down one of humanity’s most imposing medical problems – one that affects a massive percentage of the world’s population.
Age-induced hearing loss, also known as presbycusis, is one of the biggest issues in the audiology world. Some hearing loss cases are present from birth, but the ones that aren’t (barring cases of dramatic damage, like an explosion) typically appear as a person rises above the age of 65.
Why is hearing loss research important?
You might think that you take care of your ears, and that you’ll be all set in terms of audiological health. You might think that if you don’t go to loud concerts, and maintain a generally healthy lifestyle, then your ears will be in perfect condition well into your triple digits.
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that, by 2050, just under 1 billion people on Earth will suffer from some degree of disabling hearing loss. That means there are considerable odds than any one of us could end up with damaged hearing.
So even if you don’t wake up to an airhorn every morning, the way you use your headphones, or even your diet, might be causing gradual long term damage to your ears, so any research being done into preventing age-induced hearing loss is good news for us all.
How can flies help us solve hearing loss?
So getting into it, how does this research into the genetics of fruit flies help us solve age-induced hearing loss?
Well, as weird as it may sound, a fly’s auditory system is surprisingly similar to a human’s. And while their lifespans are significantly shorter than ours (they typically only live for around 58 days), they can actually experience hearing loss themselves, with a noticeable drop in their hearing capabilities being recorded at around day 50 of their life cycle.
Something to understand as a foundation for this study is that you can’t make anything immortal. Every animal dies, every plant withers, even the stars themselves have expiration dates.
So coming off of this natural law, we need to understand that we can’t exactly stop our ears from failing at some point. What we can do is slow down their process of presbycusis until our lives come to their natural end.
The researchers identified four genes, found in both flies and humans, that are crucial for good hearing, as well as most other senses as well.
Researchers tested some gene therapy on flies with this knowledge in mind, and found that they were able to use a specific paralog (which is a genetic term for a gene descended from a specific ancestor) to slow the fly’s auditory decay until its life ended naturally.
“Our study suggests that it might not even be necessary to understand age-related hearing loss to find new ways of treating it. By knowing which genes helped fruit flies maintain their hearing, we were able to then manipulate them to prevent age-related hearing loss. Identifying these genes in humans could stop hearing loss, too.”
Obviously this needs a bit more research – although they are similar, flies and humans do have different auditory systems, and there’s no sure way of knowing if the same processes would yield the same results, but this is a great place to start. It may indeed be the case that scientists will be able to replicate this process with fruit flies on humans, and slow down our own auditory decay
This is a big development, and is certainly a great bit of news for any researchers in the field of audiology. Like any breaking news development in the field of science, it’ll take a bit to see if it can be applied practically, but it’s a great starting point, and definitely something to keep your eyes on.