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Through Meet the Researcher, Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) aims to explain the Emerging Research Grants (ERG) and Ménière’s Disease Grants (MDG) projects in lay terms, as well as to show how the scientist became interested in science, and to reveal the person behind the research.

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HHF's ERG program awards grants to scientists who research under-funded and under-researched hearing disorder. MDG funds research focused on advancing our understanding of the causes, diagnoses, and treatments of Ménière’s disease, the inner ear and balance disorder.

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Balmer received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Georgia State University and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Oregon Hearing Research Center at Oregon Health & Science University. A 2017 Emerging Research Grants scientist, Balmer received the Les Paul Foundation Award for Tinnitus Research.

Tinnitus may be caused by persistent cellular activity that leads to the false perception of a sound. My work focuses on understanding a type of neuron (nerve cell) in the auditory system that may underlie this activity.

Neurons send signals through neurotransmitters that travel across synapses, from a neuron’s axons to another’s dendrites. The cell type I am focusing on has a unique, single paintbrush-like dendrite, described in its name, the “unipolar brush cell.” This cell is found in the cochlear nucleus, the part of the brain linked by the auditory nerve to the inner ear.

The dendritic brush of these cells slows the neurotransmitters from leaving the synapse—they linger at these synapses. Using physiological recording techniques, we found that this leads to persistent excitatory activity, and we reasoned this may lead to tinnitus.

Unipolar brush cells have only recently been defined as a distinct cell type—most cell types were defined over 100 years ago. I am researching how they regulate their persistent activity and what signals they receive and process.

While studying psychology as an undergrad, I became interested in the fundamental biological mechanisms that underlie sensation, perception, and thought. My first lab experience was to study odor sensation in bumblebees. I felt at home in a lab, where I could explore how the brain
works by looking at its component parts.

From an early age I understood that taking things apart and putting them back together is an effective way to learn how they work. In high school I spent a lot of time rebuilding and modifying cars and engines, giving me experience in design and engineering that I use as a researcher.

Moreover, troubleshooting an engine that won’t start is an implicit lesson in problem solving and the use of the scientific method. It starts with an observation (the engine won’t start), which leads to a hypothesis about the cause (there is no spark at the spark plugs) and testable predictions (if I can make them spark, the engine will start).

I have tinnitus myself. It is impossible to be certain what caused it, but my guess is that frequent use of power tools without hearing protection may have caused damage.

I still work on cars (using hearing protection!) and am restoring a 1969 MGB that I’ve been tinkering with since college. I also repair and modify mechanical watch movements, focusing on those worn by U.S. service members, including a Rolex that kept time on the wrist of a close friend during the Korean War, and an Elgin worn by a pilot in World War II. I also keep active by cycling to and from the lab, totaling over 1,000 miles a year.

Timothy Balmer, Ph.D., received the Les Paul Foundation Award for Tinnitus Research. We thank the Les Paul Foundation for its support of innovative research that will increase our understanding of the mechanisms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of tinnitus.

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Banakis Hartl received her doctorate degree in audiology and her medical degree from Northwestern University, Illinois, and is a resident in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Colorado Denver. Her 2017 Emerging Research Grant is generously supported by HHF’s Board of Directors as well as supporters who designated their gifts to fund the most promising hearing research.

There is a growing clinical interest in the use of cochlear implants (CIs) to treat single-sided deafness, in which patients have typical hearing in one ear and a profound hearing loss in the other. Historically, it was thought that implants should only be used in patients with profound hearing loss in both ears due to the concern that the brain would have difficulty simultaneously interpreting electrical stimulation from a CI and from normal acoustic input. This project looks at how using a single CI alters hearing pathways in the auditory brainstem, with the long-term goal of determining who may be more likely to benefit from implantation.

As a teen, I volunteered for 10 years at a summer camp where I worked with children who were deaf on their speech and language therapy goals. I thought I would be a teacher of the deaf or a speech therapist, but I was drawn to audiology and eventually medicine. I am the first medical doctor and researcher in my family.

I never thought that I was smart enough to pursue a career in science. Even through college into graduate school, I believed that people who went into medicine or research were brilliant and I didn’t have the mental capacity. But I persistently pursued my interests and have found that hard work and determination can be more important.

While in training, my interest in the otologic management of hearing loss was solidified when I helped my 91-year-old grandmother get a cochlear implant. The intervention changed her life and I have no doubt that it dramatically improved the quality of the last years of her life.

In the past year, I have had the fortunate opportunity to travel to many national and international scientific and clinical meetings to present across a variety of research interests, even winning an award from the American Otologic Society. This has reinforced my interest in the otologic management of hearing loss.

I am an avid runner.

I try my best to get some running in every day, and on the weekends you can usually find me with my family or running a half marathon. I also hope to get back into swing dancing, a passion I had in college.

Renee Banakis Hartl, M.D., Au.D.’s grant was supported by HHF’s Board of Directors as well as supporters who designated their gifts to fund the most promising hearing research.


Bochner studied language and audition at the University of Wisconsin, from where he received his Ph.D. He is a professor and department chair at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Bochner’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International.

I’ve worked with young adults who have a hearing loss since 1974, when I started my career at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). I’ve observed how hearing loss occurring before child acquires language (being prelingually deaf) affects later development of language and literacy skills—even when they receive amplification devices at an early age. These effects occur because of the interaction between auditory experience and neurocognitive development.

My research will look at the role prelingual hearing loss has on the development of auditory “categories.” I will examine how individuals who are prelingually deaf and who hear with cochlear implants categorize speech sounds. This will improve our understanding of speech perception and how auditory deprivation affects central auditory processing.

Ultimately, the research may point to interventions such as auditory training to improve the development of language and literacy in individuals with hearing loss, as well as provide insights into the relationship between early auditory experience and central auditory processing.

Growing up, I had an aptitude for math but became interested in the study of literature. I particularly enjoyed classical Greek plays, Shakespeare, and modern poetry. This interest evolved into the study of language and linguistics when I was an undergraduate and, as a graduate student, applied linguistics. Linguistics is a discipline based to some extent on theories of language. In contrast, applied linguistics involves the application of linguistics to language teaching and learning, among other things.

Eventually I began exploring language and deafness, as well as the more broadly defined language sciences. My background in applied linguistics, specifically English as a second language, was integral for teaching English to young adults with hearing loss.

I enjoy my downtime doing family activities and watching sports. I used to play a lot of basketball and some baseball. Now I really enjoy following football, baseball, basketball (especially the NCAA), and ice hockey.

Successful collaboration with colleagues is something I value a great deal. While working on a recent paper about adult learners of American Sign Language, a colleague showed me how statistical analysis could be used to interpret and confirm our data. It was a nice way to obtain objective evidence and generate deeper insights.

Joseph H. Bochner, Ph.D.’s grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International. We want to thank the Royal Arch Masons for their ongoing commitment to research in the area of central auditory processing disorders.

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Bonino earned her Ph.D. in hearing science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also did postdoctoral work. She is now an assistant professor in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. Bonino’s 2017 ERG grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International.

I always say that I have the best job—I get paid to ask interesting questions. Having this level of independence, creativity, and flexibility in my work allows me to better serve children with hearing loss through my research.

Children’s development of speech and language is often diminished because of competing sounds in the surrounding environment. While it is clear that the ability to listen in noise substantially improves between infancy and entering school around age 5, we do not know how and when this process unfolds during the intervening years. I want to help develop a
reliable behavioral method for measuring speech perception in noise for toddlers and preschoolers, to better understand auditory development, the effects of hearing loss, and the potential underpinnings of auditory processing disorders.

I was first exposed to real experimental science for my seventh-grade science fair. For my project, I attempted to grow tomatoes and beans using hydroponics, that is, with nutrients but without soil. It was a complete failure. Despite never successfully growing any plants, I learned about controlled experiments and the importance of persistence, an important lesson.

The effects of hearing loss on child development was something I became interested in through my undergraduate studies of language development and cognition at the University of Rochester. As a graduate student in audiology at Vanderbilt University, I quickly realized the importance of research in guiding clinical practice. And then as a practicing educational audiologist, I saw how little of a research base there was for many of the clinical decisions I was making. Ultimately, these experiences led me to become a researcher.

As a mother of three young children, I spend most of my time outside of working chasing children... and folding laundry. I am slightly obsessed with car seats for infants and children and ensuring that they are installed correctly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that nearly half of car seats are incorrectly installed, increasing the risk of injury. So I try to tell every parent I know: Make an appointment at your local fire station to have your child’s car seat checked—it’s free!

It is my goal that my research and teaching improves the lives of children with hearing loss and their families. Every day I also have the privilege of working with students who will be the next generation of clinicians. I hope that when they leave our program they will be lifelong learners who critically question and incorporate research into their clinical practice while being sensitive and empathic professionals.

Angela Yarnell Bonino, Ph.D.’s grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International. We want to thank the Royal Arch Masons for their ongoing commitment to research in the area of central auditory processing disorders.

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Choi received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Seoul National University, South Korea, with focus on acoustics and psychoacoustics. He is currently an assistant professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Iowa. Choi’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International.

Hearing in a noisy, real-world setting is not a trivial task. My research focuses on the understating speech-in-noise comprehension (or lack thereof), also known as the “cocktail party problem.” We study both the central and peripheral nervous systems, and how these systems interact to accomplish auditory focus. One promising solution is to develop an “intelligent” hearing device that can automatically select and amplify a target sound while suppressing competing sounds.

My high school music teacher suggested I study acoustics, the physics of sound, because while I had a passion for music, I did not have the talent. Under the supervision of my college professor Koeng-Mo Sung, a pioneer acoustician in South Korea, we designed piano soundboards, developed
a new concept of surround audio systems, and implemented biology-inspired algorithms for sound-quality evaluations. My postdoctoral adviser, Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, showed me how to recognize the beauty of mathematical models that explain biological systems in straightforward, elegant ways.

When I was a doctoral student, I was a huge fan of Cambridge Professor Brian C.J. Moore, Ph.D.’s textbook, “An Introduction to the Psychology of Hearing.” I attended a visiting lecture by him when I was conducting research at Boston University and even I brought his book with me to get autographed. After his talk, I was unable to reach him through he crowd and instead went out to dinner with a friend. Shortly after our meal started, incredibly, he came into the same restaurant and agreed to autograph my book!

Three years later, I crossed paths with Moore again and asked if I could translate his book into Korean. He agreed, and it took me the next took two years to finish and publish the translation. This work enabled me to deeply understand the fundamentals of hearing science more than ever before.

Outside of the lab, nothing compares to playing with my 5-year-old daughter. We sing and dance together to Earth, Wind & Fire songs. Her favorite song is “September,” the month of her birthday.

My father suffers from high-frequency hearing loss, a common issue for those his age. I hope my fellow hearing scientists and I can soon help him and other patients with hearing loss. My understanding of hearing improves every year, and I am optimistic that we will be able to develop novel hearing solutions in the near future.

Inyong Choi, Ph.D.’s grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International. We want to thank the Royal Arch Masons for their ongoing commitment to research in the area of central auditory processing disorders.

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Diaz-Horta received his doctorate in biomedical sciences from the University of Havana, Cuba, and completed postdoctoral research at the University of Miami, where he is now an assistant scientist in the department of human genetics. Diaz-Horta is a 2017 Emerging Research Grants recipient funded by The Children’s Hearing Institute.

Despite great advances in modern science, the molecular mechanisms of hearing and cochlear development still remain to be elucidated. My research consists of detecting and characterizing genes that, when mutated, cause hearing loss. Over the past six years, our team has discovered multiple deafness-related genes, including mutations in FAM65B. After publishing its initial characterization, we are now determining the mechanism by which the defective gene can influence optimal hearing.

My father is a physician who is specialized in endocrinology. He graduated from medical school in Havana in the late ’60s. In the ’70s, he received additional training in universities in England and West Germany. He was very interested in research and explicitly wanted me to become a scientist.

I entered a science-oriented boarding school in Cuba in 1988 called Humboldt 7, which definitely shaped my affinity for science and discovery. My teachers in math, chemistry, and
physics effectively conveyed to me the concepts of cause and effect and that by changing variables you can obtain different outcomes in a particular system.

I like creating tools or objects that help to make things easier at work and in life. I designed a device to simultaneously open and close multiple laboratory tubes that I then asked my father-in-law to build. The working prototype now in my lab has saved lots of time and effort when I perform molecular biology experiments.

A major career highlight so far has been to be part of the discovery and characterization of a deafness gene called ROR1. When mutated, this gene causes hearing loss due to a defective innervation of auditory hair cells. The discovery was not mere serendipity—it was the result of performing genome sequencing in families with deafness.

I have undergone training at institutions in Europe, including two years each in Italy and Belgium, so besides incorporating Italian and French to my spoken languages, I also learned to cook foods from these two countries. My spouse, who is English, tells me how impressed she is about the diversity of dishes I have prepared over the course of our six-year relationship.

Oscar Diaz-Horta, Ph.D.’s grant is funded by HHF partner The Children’s Hearing Institute (CHI). We thank CHI for its generous support of innovative research focused on congenital and acquired childhood hearing loss and its causes, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.

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Luu received her medical degree at the University of Tübingen, Germany, followed by a doctoral degree in medicine from Tübingen Hearing Research Center. She is a postdoctoral fellow at Eaton Peabody Laboratory at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School. Luu’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant is generously funded by The Estate of Howard F. Schum.

Ménière’s disease is an inner ear and balance disorder currently diagnosed according to patient symptom reports that vary and may mimic other hearing and balance diseases.
My work in the lab of Albert Edge, Ph.D., a member of HHF’s Hearing Restoration Project, is to help physicians diagnose more quickly and accurately. Our research group is developing a novel classification based on imaging of the vestibular aqueduct, the bony canal that connects the inner
ear to the skull and which has a strikingly different structure in Ménière’s patients. Our precise technique may reduce the time it takes to finalize a Ménière’s diagnosis.

I was first exposed to scientific research in high school when my teacher enrolled me in an additional experimental biology class. My chemistry teacher later encouraged me to start my own school laboratory that focused on infrared spectroscopy, a technique used to identify and study
chemicals. I conducted research and wrote my first small research thesis about making homemade acetaminophen and using infrared spectroscopy to test its purity.

It was after my first mouse ear dissection that I decided I wanted to research the ear, nose, and throat. I was fascinated by the shape and size of the inner ear and the ossicles (bones) of the middle ear, especially the stapes, the tiny bones that resemble the stirrups of a saddle. I also saw there’s no better way to impact patient care than by aiming for a significant contribution through science and research.

I cook to unwind. Everything related to preparing meals is relaxing to me: food shopping, researching international ingredients, composing creative meals from limited seasonal offerings, and finally making even picky eaters happy. Strolling through supermarkets was always the first thing I did after exams in medical school. I also enjoy snowboarding, writing, art, and playing the piano.

Finding colleagues who are not only passionate about their work but also trustworthy, collaborative, and enthusiastic makes me so thankful. I hope to one day lead my own inner ear research group while remaining a practicing clinician as well as a wife and mother. This means I will keep working hard on essential skills in work, life, and sleep management!

Ngoc-Nhi Luu, Ph.D.’s grant is generously funded by The Estate of Howard F. Schum, and was awarded for innovative research that will increase our understanding of the inner ear and balance disorder Ménière’s disease.

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Manohar received his doctorate in stress physiology from Madras University, India, and is a postdoctoral fellow at SUNY Buffalo in the Center for Hearing and Deafness. Manohar’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant is funded by Hyperacusis Research Ltd.


The goal of my research at the University at Buffalo’s Center for Hearing and Deafness is to find a cure for hyperacusis, a condition that causes a reduced tolerance to everyday sound levels. Patients with hyperacusis have a low threshold for pain, which may be explained by a heightened central pain mechanism.

My research team is studying the gene and protein expression of various brain regions involved in processing auditory information and producing pain. Using a rat model, we are assessing noise-induced pain levels by using novel behavioral tests. We then analyze the gene and protein expression in the rats’ brains and correlate certain genes or proteins (biomarkers) to noise-induced pain. Identification of these biomarkers is a first step for developing treatment and earlier diagnosis of hyperacusis.

One new behavioral test I developed for the rats is the active sound avoidance paradigm. It is based on two known, innate rat behaviors: They avoid a place if it is too noisy or too bright. To do the test, we measure the time the rat spends in a dark box during a variety of amplified sounds. If it spends less time in the dark box with a moderate sound (not usually too loud for a typical rat), then it may have a noise-induced aversion to moderate sound—a symptom of hyperacusis.

Small molecular reactions that can influence our mood and behaviors have always fascinated me. I studied biochemistry as an undergraduate as well as a postgraduate, and during my pre-doctoral program, I was trained in neurochemistry. My education and work have taught me to
solve problems using a multidisciplinary approach.

Oddly, my interest in biochemistry came from my mother’s cooking, in a small village in India. She used a lot of spices in her food preparation, and as a child I always wondered how each spice influenced my taste and perception in general. I asked my mom all about the spices and why she chose to add them to our food. My curiosity for small molecules affecting perception has not faded since. I still value cooking and family. My favorite things to do outside of work are to cook and to play with my kids.

Both knowledge and practice in the lab is, I believe, the source for new inventions and hearing therapies. I feel the most rewarded when my results are confirmed or reproduced by other researchers. In the future, I hope to oversee my own auditory research lab and continue to make new findings to ultimately help those with hyperacusis.

Senthilvelan Manohar, Ph.D.’s grant is funded by Hyperacusis Research Ltd. We thank Hyperacusis Research for its support of studies that will increase our understanding of the mechanisms, causes, diagnosis, and treatments of hyperacusis and severe forms of loudness intolerance.

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Morgan received his doctorate in biochemistry from University College London, where he also completed postdoctoral research and at the U.K.’s University of Manchester. He is a senior research associate at Oregon Health & Science University. His 2017 Emerging Research Grant is supported by donors who designated gifts to Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) to fund Usher syndrome research, and by the board of HHF.

Usher syndrome is the most common cause of combined blindness and deafness. To further our knowledge about this genetic disorder, our aim is to understand how the ear works at a molecular level. The hair cells of the inner ear detect sound and vibrations using very fine projections. The
molecules directly responsible for monitoring movement of the hair bundles are located at the very tips of the projections.

During my studies I realized that individual molecules are only as important as the molecules with which they associate. Molecules of the inner ear had been understudied, mostly because of technical limitations. In 2007, Peter Barr-Gillespie, Ph.D. (the scientific director of the Hearing Restoration
Project), pioneered a study of the molecular makeup of the hair bundle using mass spectrometry. Now in his lab we use modern mass-spectrometry methods to detect these
incredibly scarce molecules.

By identifying all of the molecules present, and determining how they associate, we should be able to model the fully assembled mechanosensitive apparatus, or how sound is converted to electrical signals. Ultimately we aim to perform structural studies to better understand, at a mechanistic level, why people with Usher syndrome are deaf and why blindness is delayed.

We also want to learn how in healthy individuals the ear is able to discern specific sounds in a sea of noise. This is because it could be that some Usher mutations make the hair bundle more sensitive to noise-induced damage. There is evidence in mice that mutations in one particular Usher gene, USH1C, result in hair bundles that are less sensitive to mechanical stimulation.

As a child I always watched science shows on British TV—“Horizon” and “Tomorrow’s World”—and I read New Scientist and Scientific American. The first scientist in the family, I was inspired by my high school chemistry and biology teachers, who introduced me to the British Science Association.

Through the group I was able to visit the University of Oxford to attend the yearly British Science Festival. I saw demonstrations of some of the first high-temperature superconductors, sat on a Cray supercomputer the size of a hippo, and watched detectors being built for the European particle accelerator. All made deep impressions on me on the power of science, research, and technology.

I value high-quality data and am respectful of hard work and determination and of research that pushes our knowledge forward. I personally try to adhere to these values. I think this is an exciting time for hearing research, and that our understanding is rapidly improving.

Clive Morgan, Ph.D.’s grant was generously supported by donors who designated gifts to Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) to fund Usher syndrome research, and by the board of HHF. We thank these donors for funding research to improve the understanding of Usher syndrome.

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Reuterskiöld received her doctorate in medical science from Lund University, Sweden. Also a speech-language pathologist, she is an associate professor and the chair of the department of communicative sciences and disorders at New York University. Reuterskiöld’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International.

Successful literacy is critical for a child’s development. I am fascinated by the development of language and communication skills in children and how some of the oral language skills are linked to later literacy learning. Decoding written words is mostly dependent on the child’s processing of speech sounds, requiring a certain level of awareness of speech sounds and words.

If the benefits of early cochlear implantation support the development of central auditory processing skills and phonological awareness, children with cochlear implants (CIs) would be expected to acquire phonological awareness skills comparable to children with typical hearing. However, past research has generated conflicting results, which my project will attempt to remedy through investigating rhyme recognition skills and vocabulary acquisition in children who received CIs early in life. We hope to shed light on the importance of auditory processing during a child’s first years of life for developing strong literacy skills.

I grew up in Sweden, learning several languages, and I have always been intrigued by how language and communication works, how languages differ, and how children learn to become proficient in their native language in a few years after birth.

My Master’s thesis at Boston University was on the topic of auditory comprehension in individual with aphasia (the inability to understand or express language) and whether the emotional content of words facilitate comprehension compared to neutral words; I found a significantly better performance from emotional words. I really liked the research process, continuously asking questions and learning new things. My paper was published in Cortex, and after that I was hooked and wanted to continue doing research.

I have had several different jobs. I started out as a physical education teacher and have also worked as a tour guide and a ski guide in Europe, as well as a speech-language pathologist in clinical settings. I like being in a profession where I may make a difference in someone else’s life. I also
value being able to engage with students at all levels, to watch their excitement about findings from our studies.

A novel I wrote is almost finished so I don’t want to say more just yet. We will see if someone wants to publish it—if not, it will be a story for my family! I like to cook and I am an amazing baker. I make better Swedish cinnamon buns than anyone else, if I may say so myself.

Christina Reuterskiöld, Ph.D.’s grant is generously funded by the General Grand Chapter Royal Arch Masons International. We want to thank the Royal Arch Masons for their ongoing commitment to research in the area of central auditory processing disorders.

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Resnik received a doctorate in neuroscience from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School. Resnik’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant is funded by Hyperacusis Research Ltd.


Sensorineural hearing loss due to noise exposure, aging, or certain drugs or diseases reduces the neural activity transmitted from the cochlea to the central auditory system. These types of hearing loss often give rise to hyperacusis, an auditory hypersensitivity disorder in which low-to-moderate-intensity sounds are perceived as intolerably loud or even painful.

Previously thought as originating in the damaged ear, hyperacusis is emerging as a complex disorder. While it can be triggered by a peripheral (external) injury, it develops from a maladaptation of the central auditory system to the peripheral dysfunction. In other words, the brain, in trying to
fix one thing, damages another.

The recovery of sound detection and speech comprehension accompanied by an increase in sound
sensitivity may reflect an “overcompensation”—that drives the recovery of basic signal representations but also pushes central networks toward unstable states of heightened excitability and gain.

We want to better understand the paradoxical role of central auditory system plasticity as both the cause of—and treatment for—the perceptual consequences of hearing loss. To do this we are studying the brain’s compensatory mechanisms, after cochlear damage, that allow for basic sound recovery but also introduce chronic hypersensitivity, such as hyperacusis. Then we need to figure out how to use these mechanisms to our advantage, in order to improve how the brain processes sound after hearing loss.

As a child curious about how things work, I remember wondering, Can animals understand speech How do they communicate with one another? Now I wonder, how does the brain modify its own circuits and functions in order to navigate through dynamic environments and evolving sensory needs? By this I mean changes in the environment, like the lack of light or a lot of noise, or changes in the signal, such as talking to someone who has an accent. All of these affect how our brain interprets sound.

My audiogram shows typical hearing, but I know I have problems understanding speech in noisy environments, unless the person is standing right next to me. There isn’t yet a test (for humans) to diagnose “hidden hearing loss”—difficulty hearing speech in noise—but I sometimes wonder if it could be that.

Spanish is my mother tongue, since I grew up in Argentina. Then I lived and studied in Israel and learned Hebrew, and now I am the U.S. using English. So I speak three different languages, which makes me think about speech sounds, meanings, accents, and tones on a daily basis.

Jennifer Resnik, Ph.D.’s grant is funded by Hyperacusis Research Ltd. for her work investigating hyperacusis. We thank Hyperacusis Research for its support of studies examining hyperacusis and other severe forms of loudness intolerance.

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Roberts received his Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also did postdoctoral work, along with at Oregon Health & Science University. He is now an assistant professor at the Kresge Hearing Research Institute at the University of Michigan. Roberts’ 2017 Emerging Research Grant is generously funded by The Barbara Epstein Foundation Inc.

Hearing with two ears, or binaural hearing, is important for our ability to localize sounds and to follow speech in noisy environments. The auditory midbrain is a major site for binaural integration, but the neurons and neural circuits responsible for this integration are largely unknown. My lab works with genetically engineered mice with fluorescent-tagged neurons to understand how neural circuits in the auditory midbrain combine information from the left and right auditory pathways to support binaural hearing. We are also investigating how these circuits can be manipulated to improve binaural hearing for those with hearing loss.

As a child, I found it curious that my grandparents would turn their hearing aids off as soon as we entered a restaurant. This meant that they could hardly hear what my sister and I said. Now, as an auditory neuroscientist, I understand that their hearing aids were amplifying background noise along
with our voices. My interest in figuring out how the brain uses sound localization cues to separate desirable signals from noise is in part motivated by those early experiences.

My father worked for IBM, so we were fortunate to have an early PC in our house at a time when very few households had a computer. I spent hours learning to program in BASIC. I still enjoy solving problems by writing programs, which is a skill that has been very helpful in my research.

In high school my interests shifted toward biology and I became interested in understanding how the brain works. In college at the University of Chicago, I was fortunate to find a position in a neuroscience lab with an excellent and patient mentor, Khaled Houamed, Ph.D. He taught me how to
perform patch clamp electrophysiology—a research approach that makes it possible to record and manipulate the electrical activity of individual neurons. I was hooked and spent every moment I could in the lab.

My wife and I like to joke that we are road warriors. We enjoy road trips and can drive for 12 hours without thinking anything of it. We’re having a great time exploring our new home state of Michigan and visiting the Great Lakes. I also enjoy fly fishing—standing waist-deep in a roaring river is a
tremendous way to interact with nature.

Michael Roberts, Ph.D.’s grant is generously funded by The Barbara Epstein Foundation Inc.

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Sheth received his Ph.D. in pharmacology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, where he is now a postdoctoral fellow. Sheth’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant was funded by a generous family foundation with an interest in funding strial atrophy research.

Cisplatin is a widely used chemotherapy treatment for various solid tumors. Unfortunately, its use sometimes results in permanent hearing loss. Understanding cisplatin ototoxicity (toxicity to the ear) is crucial for the development of novel treatments to combat this serious side effect.

My lab examines the molecular mechanisms that are responsible for cisplatin ototoxicity, which appears to be caused by the imbalance of ions in the cochlear fluid. Our studies found that the ionic imbalance caused by cisplatin may be due to the reduction in the activity of an enzyme regulating sodium and potassium balance that is present in the stria vascularis, an important tissue in the inner ear.

However, this suppressive effect by cisplatin may be restored through epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a substance present in green tea that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. This project aims to investigate the potential of EGCG to prevent or cure hearing loss in cancer patients who are treated with cisplatin.

The seeds of my career in research were sown when, as a child, I used to spend evenings in my uncle’s drugstore wondering how different drugs cured diseases in patients. Years later as an undergrad, I used a device called a kymograph to test and record the effects of different drugs on the heart rate and force of contraction on an isolated frog heart. I became genuinely interested in the mechanism of action of different drugs—why does one drug increase the heart rate and force of contraction, and another drug does exactly the opposite?

If I hadn’t become a researcher I would be running my dad’s garment business in India. My uncle also lives in India and is suffering from noise-induced hearing loss. He blames the extremely noisy traffic on the congested streets of Mumbai as the main cause.

In my free time I like to solve Sudoku puzzles, listen to Indian music, and binge-watch my favorite shows on Netflix or HBO. I enjoy spending time with my wife by hiking, visiting the farmers market, and occasionally checking out neighborhood garage sales with her. One of my goals in life is to learn to play at least one musical instrument, so I am learning to play the guitar. Most of the people I know would be surprised to know that I was an average student in school but did very well in sports and cultural activities like singing and dancing. I have several medals to show for it!

Sandeep Sheth, Ph.D.’s grant was funded by a generous family foundation with an interest in funding strial atrophy research.


Swinburne received his Ph.D. in cell biology from Harvard Medical School, where he now conducts research on systems biology of the inner ear. A 2013 Emerging Research Grants scientist, Swinburne is a 2017 Ménière’s Disease Grants researcher during its inaugural year.


The tissue of the inner ear is not just a static barrier. It contains the endolymphatic sac, which acts like a relief valve to control inner ear pressure and fluid. My goal for this project is to understand the working origins of the valve’s structure and activity.

My discovery of the relief valve activity came about through the convergence of three events: a chance recommendation from a British professor to look for the endolymphatic sac; my recovery and study of a previously isolated mutant gene that causes the valve to malfunction, taken from sperm stored in a freezer in Oregon for a decade; and my adaptation of a poison from an Asian snake for imaging the zebrafish, which allows healthy ear physiology to persist while immobilized under a microscope. It was the use of snake poison that led to my first observation of the valve activity.

Puzzles and mysteries have always interested me. In grade school through college, I liked math, chemistry, and physics, probably because their solutions are more forthcoming when compared with biology. But my interest in biology took off as an undergrad, when I worked with my dad’s colleagues in a hospital in Rochester, New York, for two summers. In the infectious diseases lab I became excited about experiments: designing, performing, and troubleshooting them. I realized there was a lot of room for creative solutions in biological research.

After graduate school, I took an embryology course in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, observing and experimenting with a wide variety of organisms: sea urchins, squids, frogs, worms, chickens, flies, and zebrafish. I became interested in how the shapes of organs arise during development and how these structures work for healthy physiology. This eventually led to exploring the relationship between structure and function in the ear.

A curiosity about nature came from playing outdoors and hiking with my family as a child. One activity I loved was waterworks: building canals and aqueducts out of sand or dirt and then pouring water through them just to watch it flow. Now I recognize an echo of that play in my study of water pressure and flow within the ear.

Ian Swinburne, Ph.D., is funded through Ménière’s Disease Grants (MDG). Launched in 2017, Hearing Health Foundation’s MDG program supports research focused on advancing our understanding of the inner ear and balance disorder.

Xiaodong Tan.jpeg

Tan received his Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from Creighton University in Nebraska and completed postdoctoral research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Northwestern University, Illinois, where he is currently a research assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery. Tan’s 2017 Emerging Research Grant is generously supported by HHF’s Board of Directors as well as supporters who designated their gifts to fund the most promising hearing research.

A serendipitous meeting on a badminton court in China, with an oncologist who later became a good friend, provided the impetus for this research project. During one of our many discussions about science, he told me about a cancer-fighting magnolia plant extract called honokiol. Since the molecular mechanism of honokiol works for both cancer suppression
and normal tissue protection, I immediately saw that honokiol could be a promising candidate for hearing protection.

For instance, we know that cisplatin, a common chemotherapy drug, increases oxidative stress, causing the loss of auditory sensory hair cells and resulting in hearing loss. But other drugs that relieve this adverse effect also compromise the antitumor effect of cisplatin.

Honokiol, by contrast, has been shown to both suppress tumor growth while protecting normal tissue and cells from oxidative stress by improving mitochondrial function. Since the auditory outer hair cells are extremely vulnerable to oxidative stress, it is expected that honokiol can protect against cisplatin-induced hearing loss, and it may also prove beneficial to fight noise-induced and age-related hearing loss.

After conducting several promising pilot studies, I have begun the process of verifying and understanding how honokiol protects hearing during chemotherapy. The long-term goal is to develop a new therapeutic regimen for chemotherapy that reduces tumors but protects hearing, thus improving the quality of life after treatment.

I grew up in a family that values knowledge, science, and technology. My grandfather had severe hearing loss due to exposure to loud noises without having hearing protection. Although he has passed away, I hope my study can help people like him in the future.

My aim is to further our understanding of hearing loss and protection through describing the working mechanisms, application, and limitations of honokiol. I am hopeful that a healthcare product for hearing loss based on the hearing protective effect of honokiol will be able to be launched in the market, for drug-induced as well as noise-induced and age-related hearing loss, and that I will be able to see the positive influence of this study on hearing health for cancer patients and older adults as well as the general population.

Xiaodong Tan, Ph.D.’s grant was generously supported by HHF’s Board of Directors as well as supporters who designated their gifts to fund the most promising hearing research.