24 July 2013
This clump of green fingers isn’t an exotic plant, but a cluster of microscopic tubes on the surface of a cell in the inner ear, known as stereocilia. Passing soundwaves make the stereocilia wobble, sending signals to the brain that interprets everything from the beauty of Mozart to the roar of a motorbike. Each finger is connected to its neighbour by a tiny thread, which helps to transmit sound signals effectively. Because they’re so delicate, these stereocilia and connecting threads can get damaged by loud sounds, leading to hearing loss. But while our inner ear cells themselves can’t be repaired, researchers have found that the tiny connecting threads can be stitched back together again. They’re now starting to understand what the links are made of, as well as how they’re recreated after damage, revealing more about the complexity of biological engineering that enables us to hear the world around us.
Written by Kat Arney