Biophysics of the inner ear

So, 400 million years ago,
swimming around the ocean, were fish that had
vestibular organs like our own, the inner
ear, the part of the ear that senses motion and gravity. That’s 200 million years
before the dinosaurs were on the planet, and if you
look at the fossil record, the semi-circular canals
that sense angular motion, and the linear motion sensors
look much like the ones we have today in humans,
in modern humans. And it kind of speaks to how
important this sense really is. So, a lot of the work in our
lab is centered around hearing and balance, and what can
we do to understand better how hair cells function, how
the inner ear functions and what can we do to treat
disorders of the inner ear. So my previous students, Suhrud
Rajguru came to the lab and we started recording
responses of neurons to pulsed laser light,
and I was just astounded that they respond
amazingly in phase lock, so for every laser pulse we
got an action potential, and the potential of this for
making cochlear implants and other therapeutics
is really profound. And so, cochlear implants,
although they do restore hearing and give some people–deaf
people–the ability to understand speech,
they’re not good enough to allow you to
appreciate music, or to really control the timing
of sound going to the ear. So we have a lot of hope about
using pulsed laser light to make a cochlear implant,
vestibular implant, for restoring
hearing to the deaf, for example, restoring balance
to those that don’t have it. And the same kinds of
technologies–I have another student working on using it
for deep brain stimulation for movement disorders,
for example, Parkinson’s, or other types of
movement disorders. The Brain Institute has served a
little bit like a meeting point, a nexus, you know,
bringing people together. Along with the USTAR program
we’ve been able to recruit some really top-notch people recently
and I’m really excited about that and I’m delighted about
the opportunity of being able to work with some of these
people and learn new things.

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