Scientists are making strides towards developing a drug — a sort of chemical earmuff — which could prevent hearing damage in people before they're exposed to damaging noise; meaning for example that soldiers who are expected to encounter loud sounds in their duties could, one day, take a hearing-protection drug before exposure to sounds, yet still hear commands.

The team of biologists at the University of Iowa and Washington University has been able to identify the molecular receptors that cause hearing loss.

Then, in experiments with mice, the team successfully used a drug that prevented hearing damage while still allowing the mice to hear.

It is well known that once people start to lose their hearing they can’t get it back, but the exciting new research raises the possibility of preventing hearing loss by blocking the effects of loud noises in advance.

The approach has been described as like outfitting the mice with chemical earmuffs that prevented them from sustaining hearing damage by blocking the breakdown that occurs in some synapses between inner ear hair cells and nerve cells when loud noises occur.

The experiments in mice indicate there is the potential to inject a drug that would prevent hearing damage in people before they're exposed to damaging noise.

Conceivably, soldiers who are expected to encounter loud sounds in their duties could take a hearing-protection drug before exposure to those sounds, yet still hear commands. However, the researchers have emphasised the theories remain fairly speculative at this stage, although the US Department of Defense helped fund the research.

Professor Steven Green, an author of the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said, “It wasn't just putting earmuffs on — these earmuffs prevent the damage caused by loud sounds but don't muffle the sound.”

Last reviewed 11 February 2020