Small talk in the ear
13 May 2005
The ultimate goal in science is how we can use our brain to understand itself. Learning how nerve cells communicate lies at the heart of this quest.
The ultimate goal in science is how we can use our brain to understand itself. Learning how nerve cells communicate lies at the heart of this quest
Communication between nerve cells (neurons) is based on sending electrical impulses between cells. These are generated by the tightly regulated movement of ions – particles carrying a positive or negative electrical charge – to create small electrical currents.
In the ear, for example, exquisitely designed cells generate electrical currents in response to sound, enabling information about sound to be communicated to the brain. These cells have a row of small ‘hairs’ that pick up sound vibrations which trigger a series of intracellular signals, culminating in the movement of ions and a nerve impulse being sent to the brain.
Regulating the movement of ions is critically important if the sound is to be correctly interpreted. It has been found that calcium plays a central role. Researchers in the Department of Physiology are studying calcium and ion movements in auditory cells to understand the process of hearing. With damage to these hair cells being the most common cause of deafness, learning how they operate may suggest ways to guard against their destruction.