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Barn owls may hold key to restoring human hearing

Thursday 21st September 2017
Could analysis of barn owls hearing hold the key to understanding the potential for restoring hearing in humans? Image: Nathanx1 via iStock
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An unlikely candidate could hold the key to helping scientists understand how hearing function could be restored in humans: the humble barn owl.

Researchers based at Germany's University of Oldenburg have found that barn owls have apparently 'ageless' ears and tend not to lose any of their hearing function as they get older, unlike humans, for whom hearing loss is often part of the degenerative ageing process.

By the age of 65, humans can expect to have irreversibly lost more than 30 decibels' worth of sensitivity when hearing high frequencies, meaning they are unable to hear as much as they once could.

Scientists found that birds like barn owls are able to repair their own hearing function if it does get damaged or begin to fade with age - something they believe humans may have been able to do many years ago, but which they have evolved away from.

They monitored seven owls, the oldest of which lived to the age of 23 and still had intact hearing at the end of its life. This is a particularly vital sense for these birds, as they rely on it to find their prey in the dark.

Georg Klump, co-author of the study, explained: "Birds can repair their ears like humans can repair a wound."

This therefore suggests that there are biological processes that can help to repair and restore hearing function that could potentially be triggered in humans if scientists are able to determine their origins and whether they can be artificially replicated. With the wealth of technology available today, this is something that could be possible in the not too distant future.

Speaking to BBC News about how the German study's findings could potentially help to find a way to restore hearing in humans, Dr Stefan Heller of the Stanford University School of Medicine in the US, said: "To truly utilise this knowledge, we need to conduct comparative studies of birds and mammals that aim to find the differences in regenerative capacity - a topic that is actively pursued by a number of laboratories worldwide."

The findings of the study from the University of Oldenburg have been published in full in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B.

Written by James Puckle

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