School of Medicine

$10 million to help study noise-induced hearing loss

Craig Buchman, MD (center), of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, works with resident Paul Zolkind, MD (right) during a skull surgery that involves loud drilling. Exposure to this noise can cause hearing loss in patients in the days after such surgery. (Photo: Matt Miller)

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have received $10.5 million from the Department of the Army to investigate whether an anti-seizure drug can prevent noise-induced hearing loss when given several hours before exposure to extremely loud noise.

Loud noise that can permanently damage hearing is a common hazard, whether that noise comes from a rock concert, a factory floor or a combat zone.

Researchers will evaluate the anti-seizure drug zonisamide in police officers exposed to gunfire noise at a shooting range, and in patients exposed to the sound of a drill when undergoing skull surgery. Washington University will lead the research and will collaborate with the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Akron, Ohio, and Gateway Biotechnology in St. Louis.

“Hearing loss is the most common disorder experienced by members of the military, together with tinnitus — ringing in the ears — which is related to hearing damage,” said principal investigator Craig A. Buchman, MD, the Lindburg Professor and head of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at Washington University. “Hearing loss impairs communication, making family life and social situations hard to navigate. It can make military life potentially dangerous and employment after military service very difficult. These are major quality-of-life issues. If we can develop a therapy that prevents noise-induced hearing loss, it could have a big impact.”

In animal models of hearing loss, zonisamide has been shown to protect hearing when given ahead of exposure to loud noise. The drug has a long history of safe use for epilepsy and few side effects, which make it attractive as a preventive therapy for healthy people exposed to loud noise. The drug blocks a number of chemical signals that nerve cells use to communicate.

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