MEET THE RESEARCHER
Noah R. Druckenbrod, Ph.D.
Druckenbrod received a Ph.D. in Cellular Biology and Neurobiology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is now a postdoctoral fellow in the department of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, Boston. A 2015 Emerging Research Grant scientist, he is the recipient of The Todd M. Bader Research Grant of The Barbara Epstein Foundation, Inc.
IN HIS WORDS:
The mature cochlea is a spiraled hollow chamber of bone, nestled next to the brain, that contains all the necessary components to transmit sound information to the brain.
This feat is accomplished through the organization of inner ear hair cells and spiral ganglion neurons (SGNs). Nerve cell fibers (axons) must transmit electrochemical information from the hair cells through precise synaptic connections whose arrangement is established in the fetus.
Surrounding almost all nerves are glial cells that are classically thought to support neuron health. Our early data and evidence from other studies lead us to hypothesize that how nerve cells interact with the glial tissue plays a major role in how signals guide nerve fibers through the three-dimensional terrain of the cochlea.
For example, glial cells and neurons not only attract one another but they also send signals back and forth to instruct one another’s cellular properties and behaviors. I am focusing on a glial cell type called Schwann cells.
Aspects of this research relate to cancer—and, relatedly, tinnitus. Schwann cell tumors, called schwannomas, are among the most common nervous system tumors in humans, and the most common tumors in the skull are schwannomas of the inner ear. As these tumors grow they compress vestibular and auditory nerves, usually causing hearing loss, tinnitus, and dizziness.
A fascinating property of Schwann cells is that they will begin to divide if they are not in contact with neurons. And a hallmark of inner ear schwannomas is that they appear to fail to interact with SGN axons. Therefore, the fetal cochlea offers a unique opportunity to better understand how auditory circuitry develops as well as how it can be disrupted by disease.
The thrill of discovery and figuring out the unknown has always inspired me. After some time enjoying all the sciences I became most interested in biology and health.
The first experiment of mine I can remember was in third grade for a science fair. At the time I was very interested in optical illusions and thought that left- and right-handed people may report seeing different images in a specific type of illusion. In this case I discovered that experiments don’t always work as planned! The results of the experiment were unclear because I couldn’t find enough left-handed people in my school.
You may have heard of “Ancient Aliens,” a funny show on the History Channel. About three years ago, as a favor to one of the producers I’d met, I appeared on a couple of episodes. It was a fun experience—but I was sure to make no scientifically dubious statements, unlike some of their other experts!
A 2015 Emerging Research Grant scientist, Noah R. Druckenbrod, Ph.D., grant was generously funded by The Barbara Epstein Foundation, Inc. To join Hearing Health Foundation in funding the innovative, groundbreaking work of emerging hearing and balance researchers, please see hhf.org/name-a-grant.