A neuroscientist’s quest to prevent hearing loss

Allison standing outside on a beautiful sunny day.

When Allison Coffin was a kid, she wanted to swim with sharks. But while in college she learned something that changed the course of her career: fish have ears.

“I went to college to study marine biology, and while there I learned that some fish can produce sound and talk to each other,” says WSU neuroscience professor Alli Coffin.

That realization led her to pursue a graduate degree specializing in fish hearing. And by understanding how fish hear, she says, we can better understand how humans hear.

“My lab still conducts research on fish hearing,” she says. “But most of our work uses fish to understand the cellular mechanisms of hearing loss so we can apply our findings to people.”

Understanding Hearing Loss

Nearly 30 million people in the United States have some type of hearing loss, mostly due to aging. But millions more are at risk of losing their hearing from exposure to noise.

“Lots of us are in danger of hearing loss from noise either on the job or from using earbuds,” says Coffin. Unlike headphones that cover the entire ear, sound from ear buds, which are commonly used with cell phones, leaks out. That means people may turn the volume even louder, increasing their risk of noise related hearing loss.

Although aging and noise are two of the most common causes of hearing loss, medications including certain antibiotics or chemotherapy drugs can damage hearing cells. “By learning what happens to hearing cells when exposed to noise or to medications, we can learn how to prevent hearing loss,” says Coffin.

The Anatomy of Fish Ears

In Coffin’s lab, they use tiny zebrafish, which are about the size of eyelashes when they are a few days old, to examine what happens to hearing cells when they are damaged by noise or medication and what could make those hearing cells healthy again.

“Fish can regenerate their hearing, but we can’t,” says Coffin. Once hearing cells are damaged in humans and other mammals, the cells are not replaced, but fish can produce new hearing cells to replace the damaged ones.

Unlike humans, fish have hearing sensory organs that stretch from their heads down the length of their bodies. Called the lateral line, these organs let fish feel vibrations and changes in water pressure so they can detect movement—and prey or predators—in the water. But similar to humans, the lateral line hair cells act very much like hair cells in the human ear.

Coffin and her team can also test drugs that could prevent hearing loss caused by medications.

“We can look at hundreds of potential drugs at one time to see which is the most effective,” says Coffin. “By examining different chemical compounds, we can discover which combinations are the most protective to protect the hearing cells from damage.”

This research has led them to discover a medication that is in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease may have potential for also preventing hearing loss. MM-201, a drug co-invented by WSU professors Joe Harding and Jay Wright, and Leen Kawas , president and CEO of Athira Pharma, builds new brain cell connections. Coffin and her team have found that the drug may also protect hearing cells from damage. “We are finding a new use for an already established drug that is safe to use in humans,” she says.

Basics Drive Breakthroughs

Coffin’s work, which has already led to a better understanding of hearing loss, provides the basic science that can lead to medical innovation and develop auditory therapies. And one day, that may mean fewer people will suffer from hearing loss.

Like so many labs that conduct basic science research, her lab depends on grant funding. Coffin’s lab received intramural research seed money from WSU and the College of Veterinary Medicine, which she has turned into over $300,000 in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health and national foundations to help further her work.

“Grants require a lot of pilot data to apply,” says Coffin. Five-year grants from the National Institutes of Health, for instance, can require about a third of the research to be completed before a scientist can apply. “Seed money for basic research is absolutely essential because there is no way to collect data without it.”

Just as important is that funding of basic research to help researchers explore scientific questions that lead in new ways of thinking that can solve medical questions. “Seed money allows you to explore a couple of ideas and find out what leads in the most interesting direction,” she says.

This article is the first in a series about how basic research is the foundation for medical innovation. Research conducted in neuroscience, microbiology, immunology, biochemistry, cell biology, and genetics provided the basis for developing medical technologies, therapies, and medication that can save human lives. Most basic science research is conducted at universities like WSU.