Hearing is Believing: Cells that Enable Hearing after Birth

The sense of hearing is a critical part of how we experience life and the world around us. It is so important, in fact, that the ears are fully formed and functional when we are born. Despite its significance, hearing is often underappreciated until it is lost. Hearing loss affects more than 10% of all people worldwide. Whether it is due to age, exposure to loud noises, or genetic mutations, hearing loss occurs when hair cells, the receptors in the ears that respond to sound, become damaged and die. One of the biggest challenges in counteracting hearing loss is that hair cells cannot repair or regenerate themselves, so the damage is often permanent.

Currently, people with hearing loss and deafness can use a number of devices to improve their hearing abilities. Hearing aids amplify sounds that come into the ear, and cochlear implants stimulate the nerve that sends auditory information to the brain. While these devices are useful, it would be even better to devise new ways to treat or even prevent hearing loss and deafness. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered certain cells in the inner ear that develop into sensory hair cells. Knowing how these cells differentiate into hair cells, could lead to the innovation of new ways to treat the underlying cause of deafness: the loss of hair cells in the inner ear.

Close-up Of Woman's Ear with Hearing Aid

The inner ear is a highly specialized structure for gathering and transmitting vibrations from the air. The auditory compartment, or cochlea, is a small, spiral-shaped cavity where hair cells sense the vibrations created by sound. The supporting cells that surround hair cells are also important for transmitting this auditory information to the brain. Although the inner ear is fully developed at birth, recent research has suggested that certain cells in the cochlea, called progenitor cells, retain their ability to divide even after birth. In the current study, the research team worked to identify this group of cells and understand the mechanisms that control their proliferative capacity, or their capacity to divide into new cells.

Ear and Cochlea

To do this, the researchers used a special type of mouse that allowed them to track the activation of the Wnt pathway in different cells. This cell-signaling pathway is involved in many developmental functions and controls the renewal and proliferation of stem cells. The researchers identified a class of cells, called tympanic border cells, which actively divide during a phase of cochlear maturation right after birth. These cells divide vigorously in isolated cochleas when the Wnt pathway is activated, but they stop dividing when the pathway is inhibited. In cell culture, these tympanic border cells specialize into hair cells and support cells.


Altogether, these results hint at the potential for targeting tympanic border cells in new therapeutic strategies for hearing loss. If scientists cannot revive damaged hair cells, perhaps they can make the tympanic border cells create new ones! Of course, there’s a lot more to be understood about these cells before this can become a reality. How well do these cells regenerate in models of hearing loss? Under what conditions are they most proliferative? Still, this study offers a new insight into how cells develop in the inner ear even after birth, and offers new ideas for how to stimulate the regeneration of sensory hair cells in the cochlea.



Oishi N. & Schacht J. (2011). Emerging treatments for noise-induced hearing loss, Expert Opinion on Emerging Drugs, 16 (2) 235-245. DOI: 

Jan T.A., Chai R., Sayyid Z.N., van Amerongen R., Xia A., Wang T., Sinkkonen S.T., Zeng Y.A., Levin J.R., Heller S. & Nusse R. & (2013). Tympanic border cells are Wnt-responsive and can act as progenitors for postnatal mouse cochlear cells, Development, 140 (6) 1196-1206. DOI:

Images adapted from Radius Images/CorbisWikimedia Commons, and made by Kate Jones. 

Kate Fehlhaber

Kate graduated from Scripps College in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Neuroscience, completing the cellular and molecular track with honors. As an undergraduate, she studied long-term plasticity in models of Parkinson’s disease in a neurobiology lab at University of California, Los Angeles. She continued this research as lab manager before entering the University of Southern California Neuroscience graduate program in 2011 and then transferring to UCLA in 2013. She completed her PhD in 2017, where her research focused on understanding the communication between neurons in the eye. Kate founded Knowing Neurons in 2011, and her passion for creative science communication has continued to grow.

5 thoughts on “Hearing is Believing: Cells that Enable Hearing after Birth

  • March 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

    Does the frequency response of an infant change with age? I would imagine that sensitivity to high frequencies would be less in an infant so that s/he doesn’t deafen her/himself during bouts of high-pitched screaming and crying.

    • March 11, 2013 at 10:29 am

      That’s a good question! Babies actually hear all frequencies simultaneously, so they can respond to unexpected sounds. Adults are able to separate all the sounds we hear and decide where they are coming from and focus on the ones we want to hear. Thus, adults usually hear in a narrow band of sound. Babies, on the other hand, don’t have the selective attention of adults, and they don’t pay attention all of the time. Luckily, improvements continue through age 10, when the average child’s hearing is comparable to an adult’s. FMI check out this paper: http://asadl.org/jasa/resource/1/jasman/v109/i5/p2103_s1?isAuthorized=no

      • March 11, 2013 at 1:49 pm

        Thank you for the reference. I was just wondering how infants are protected from making themselves deaf by their own crying and screaming.

    • March 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      At 115db, a baby’s cry is about as loud as a jackhammer! That means the baby’s cry can begin to cause hearing damage to a person next to the child after just 15 minutes! (http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/pages/ruler.aspx) As of right now, I don’t have a good answer to your question… I’ll keep searching!!

      • March 11, 2013 at 2:23 pm

        Exactly! I know at least one parent who lost significant hearing attending to his handicapped child, who cried nonstop. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay (don’t remember details) about the cries of young mammals being out of the range of predatory reptiles. Thanks for your attention!

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