Ana Belén Elgoyhen, CONICET Senior researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones en Ingeniería Genética y Biología Molecular “Dr. Héctor N. Torres” (INGEBI, CONICET), received the Grand Prix Scientifique of the Fondation Pour L’Audition. The objective of this prize is to recognize scientists or physicians whose discoveries improve the knowledge of human audition and can lead to advances in this field.
Elgoyhen found the two main proteins that comprise the receptor of the olivocochlear bundle of the efferent system within the inner ear. It mediates the communication of the central nervous system with the inner ear and is responsible for modulating the manner in which human being listen.
“This system is important for different reasons. To begin with, it amplifies tones that we need to listen to and simultaneously filters background sounds that can be annoying. It is also activated, for instance, when we have to undertake another behavioral task to diminish the sound information that reaches the brain so that we can focus on reading or writing, for example”, Elgoyhen explains. She is in charge of the Audition Physiology and Genetics Laboratory of the INGEBI.
The olivocochlear efferent system protects the auditory system from intense sounds. These ones can produce hearing loss –this means loss of sensitivity at different frequences, which can lead to deafness in some cases– and tinnitus –perception of phantom sounds (lacking external sound source) that are generated in the auditory and central nervous systems.
“At the laboratory, we look for molecules that allow the development of drugs that can active this protection system. Anyway, the best way to prevent damage is to avoid exposure to sound impacts that can be harmful” states the researcher.
“The problem of the sensory cells of the ears is that they are few – about 12 thousand in each one –, fragile and do not regenerate. Each cell is linked to the detection of a specific frequency. As the cells die, we lose the possibility of perceiving the corresponding frequency”, she adds.
For the researcher, beyond the recognition to her studies in basic science and their potential clinical applications, there was one aspect in her professional career that the evaluators took into consideration. That was the health service of detection of the genetic basis of hearing loss in humans, which has been in charge of her for over a decade at the INGEBI.
“At our institute, we provide a High Level Technology Service (STAN) for molecular diagnosis of deafness. Thanks to this, hearing impaired people can know the genetic origin of their hearing problems”, Elgoyhen affirms.
Elgoyhen’s nomination was proposed by a German psychiatrist specialized in tinnitus, Dr. Langguth Berthold, with whom the researcher shares the executive committee of the Tinnitus Research Initiative.
“To be awarded is a stimulus and recognition. It is even more important if it is an international award in which researchers from the entire world participate, including those from the main laboratories that have much more resources than us. This prize is also a great encouragement for the fellows and researchers who work with me because what we are doing here in Argentina is first-rate work.”
By Miguel Faigón