OHSU Receives $1 Million NIH Grant To Develop Optical Instrumentation That Helps Visualize Hearing

12/08/04    Portland, Ore.

The three-year grant uniquely combines biomedical engineering knowledge with otolaryngology expertise to focus on new ways to image the inner ear.

Two Oregon Health & Science University professors recently received a $1 million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create novel ways to better understand the basic mechanisms of hearing.

Alfred Nuttall, Ph.D., director of OHSU's Oregon Hearing Research Center and professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery and biomedical engineering in the OHSU School of Medicine, and Steven L. Jacques, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering based at OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering and dermatology on the Marquam Hill Campus, will develop an optical instrument capable of imaging the hearing organ within the cochlea in animal models. The interdisciplinary collaboration between the two researchers is a great example of the direction medical research is headed, and one of the central reasons for the July 2001 merger between OHSU and OGI.

The instrument Nuttall and Jacques aim to create will use the principles of optical interferometry called optical coherence tomography to visualize the membranes and cell structures of the cochlea, and measure the movements of the cochlear structures in response to sound. The data will contribute to scientists' understanding of the micromechanical motion of the organ of Corti (the hearing organ) and how it receives sound.

"The study of the auditory function of the cochlea has progressed enormously over the last century," said Nuttall, "but the cochlea's difficult accessibility to experimentation, its small size and its extreme mechanical delicacy have hampered the understanding of hearing physiology in comparison to other organs systems. We are very interested in finding out how loud sound causes hearing loss and how the sensory cells of the cochlear amplify and discriminate complex sounds."

Added Jacques: "This grant is a new twist on previous work in the field of optical coherence tomography to image blood flow in superficial vessels. We are measuring movement of the cochlear membrane rather than movement of red blood cells, which presents new engineering challenges that our grant addresses."