How Hearing Loss Can Change the Way Nerve Cells Are Wired

Summary: A new study reports short term hearing loss can lead to changes in the auditory system, forcing neurons to alter their shape and behavior.

Source: University at Buffalo.

A study shows that short-term hearing loss can cause auditory nerve cells to alter their behavior and even their shape.

It’s winter, and your head is stuffed up from the cold or flu. Everything sounds muffled.

If this has ever happened to you, you may have experienced conductive hearing loss, which occurs when sound can’t travel freely from the outer and middle ear to the inner ear. Other common causes include ear infections in children, or a build-up of earwax in older adults.

Even short-term blockages of this kind can lead to remarkable changes in the auditory system, altering the behavior and structure of nerve cells that relay information from the ear to the brain, according to a new University at Buffalo study.

The research, published online Dec. 1 in the Journal of Neuroscience, looked at what happened when mice had their ears surgically blocked for a period of three days to over a week, dampening hearing.

“We wanted to know what happens at the brainstem, in the cells coming from the ear,” says Matthew Xu-Friedman, PhD, the lead researcher and an associate professor of biological sciences in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“What we saw is that some significant changes do occur within a few days.

“What’s still unclear, however, is whether the cells return to their normal state when acoustic conditions return to normal. We see in our research that the cells do seem to mostly bounce back, but we don’t yet know whether they completely recover.”

A smaller ‘gas tank’

The changes the research team observed had to do with neurotransmitters — chemicals that help send signals from the ear to the brain.

In mice whose ears were blocked, cells in the auditory nerve started to use their supplies of neurotransmitter more freely. They depleted their reserves of these chemicals rapidly each time a new auditory signal came in, and they decreased the amount of space within the cells that housed sac-like structures called vesicles — biological storage tanks where neurotransmitter chemicals are kept.

“When it’s quiet, the demands on the auditory nerve cells are not as great,” Xu-Friedman says. “So it makes sense that you would see these changes: You no longer need as much neurotransmitter, so why invest in a lot of storage? If you’re not that active, you don’t need a big gas tank. And you’re not as afraid to use up what you have. This is one plausible explanation for what we observed.”

The changes in cellular structure and behavior were the opposite of what Xu-Friedman team’s saw in a previous study that placed mice in a consistently noisy environment. In that project — faced with an unusually high level of noise — the mice’s auditory nerve cells started to economize their resources, conserving supplies of neurotransmitter while increasing the storage capacity for the chemicals.

Image shows synaptic connections.
A microscope image shows the location in the brain of a mouse where nerve cells from the ear enter the brain and form cup-like synaptic connections with brain cells. A new study shows that these connections change their behavior and structure when the animals’ hearing is blocked. NeuroscienceNews image is credited to Hua Yang.

“It looks like these effects are two sides of the same coin, and they might be the first hints of a general rule that nerve cells regulate their connections based on how active they are,” Xu-Friedman says.

Many questions remain

In the more recent study, cellular changes began to reverse themselves when the mice’s ears were unplugged.

“When you undo the treatment, the cells start to go back to what they were like before,” Xu-Friedman says. “However, it’s not clear that they completely recover, so we need to do more research to see if that’s the case.”

He also wants to study what happens when cells are exposed to conductive hearing loss over and over again, as happens in some small children.

“When she was young, my daughter had ear infections constantly. It seemed like she would get one every time she had a cold,” Xu-Friedman says. “I have no idea what this did to her hearing, whether there are lasting effects from this repeated plugging of the ears, or whether any impacts are temporary. If the nerve cells don’t go back completely to the way they were, it could have a permanent influence on the way you perceive sound.”

About this neuroscience research article

Xu-Friedman’s co-authors on the paper were first author Xiaowen Zhuang, a UB PhD student in biological sciences, and Wei Sun, PhD, UB associate professor of Communicative Disorders and Sciences.

Funding: The research was suported by the National Science Foundation.

Source: Charlotte Hsu – University at Buffalo
Image Source: image is credited to Hua Yang.
Original Research: Abstract for “Changes in properties of auditory nerve synapses following conductive hearing loss” by Xiaowen Zhuang, Wei Sun and Matthew A. Xu-Friedman in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 1 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0523-16.2016

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University at Buffalo. “How Hearing Loss Can Change the Way Nerve Cells Are Wired.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 12 December 2016.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University at Buffalo. (2016, December 12). How Hearing Loss Can Change the Way Nerve Cells Are Wired. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved December 12, 2016 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University at Buffalo. “How Hearing Loss Can Change the Way Nerve Cells Are Wired.” (accessed December 12, 2016).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Changes in properties of auditory nerve synapses following conductive hearing loss

Auditory activity plays an important role in the development of the auditory system. Decreased activity can result from conductive hearing loss (CHL) associated with otitis media, which may lead to long-term perceptual deficits. The effects of CHL have been mainly studied at later stages of the auditory pathway, but early stages remain less examined. However, changes in early stages could be important, because they would affect how information about sounds is conveyed to higher order areas for further processing and localization. We examined the effects of CHL at auditory nerve synapses onto bushy cells in the mouse AVCN following occlusion of the ear canal. These synapses, called endbulbs of Held, normally show strong depression in voltage-clamp recordings in brain slices. After one week of CHL, endbulbs showed even greater depression, reflecting higher release probability. We observed no differences in quantal size between control and occluded mice. We confirmed these observations using mean-variance analysis and the integration method, which also revealed that the number of release sites decreased after occlusion. Consistent with this, synaptic puncta immunopositive for VGLUT1 decreased in area after occlusion. The level of depression and number of release sites both showed recovery after returning to normal conditions. Finally, bushy cells fired fewer action potentials in response to evoked synaptic activity after occlusion, likely because of increased depression and decreased input resistance. These effects appear to reflect a homeostatic, adaptive response of auditory nerve synapses to reduced activity. These effects may have important implications for perceptual changes following CHL.


Normal hearing is important to everyday life, but abnormal auditory experience during development can lead to processing disorders. For example, otitis media reduces sound to the ear, which can cause long-lasting deficits in language skills and verbal production, but the location of the problem is unknown. Here, we show that occluding the ear causes synapses at the very first stage of the auditory pathway to modify their properties, by decreasing in size and increasing the likelihood of releasing neurotransmitter. This causes synapses to deplete faster, which reduces fidelity at central targets of the auditory nerve, which could affect perception. Temporary hearing loss could cause similar changes at later stages of the auditory pathway, which could contribute to disorders in behavior.

“Changes in properties of auditory nerve synapses following conductive hearing loss” by Xiaowen Zhuang, Wei Sun and Matthew A. Xu-Friedman in Journal of Neuroscience. Published online December 1 2016 doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0523-16.2016

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