CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- People dealing with hearing loss may be able to get their hearing back, according to researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

According to a release, researchers have learned how the cells that let people hear can repair themselves after being damaged, which could benefit efforts to develop better ways to treat and prevent hearing loss.

In the inner ear, there are “hair cells” that are important to the ability to hear and to the human sense of balance. They are called stereocilia.

Scientists describe these cells as hair cells because they are covered in hair-like structures that act as mechanical antennas for detecting sound waves.

It has long been thought that once these auditory cells have been killed, they are gone for good, but this new research suggests the cells can repair themselves from damage caused by loud noises or other forms of stress.

“For many years, auditory research has placed considerable emphasis on the regeneration of sensory hair cells. Although these efforts continue, it is equally important to enhance our comprehension of the intrinsic mechanisms that govern the repair and maintenance of these cells. By gaining a deeper understanding of these inherent repair processes, we can uncover strategies to fortify them effectively. One such approach in the future might involve the utilization of drugs that stimulate repair programs,” said researcher Jung-Bum Shin, PhD, of UVA’s Department of Neuroscience. “In essence, when replacement of hair cells proves challenging, the focus shifts towards repairing them instead. This dual strategy of regeneration and repair holds strong potential in advancing treatments for hearing loss and associated conditions.

The hair cells are delicate so they will be able to sense sound, but they face continuous mechanical stress as part of their function.

These cells can be damaged by prolonged exposure to loud noise, which can damage the cores of the hair cells.

This research looks into the process they use to repair themselves by deploying a protein called XIRP2.

This protein can sense damage to the cores of the hair cells and then migrates to the site of the damage and repair the cores by filling them with a substance called actin.

“We are especially excited to have identified a novel mechanism by which XIRP2 can sense damage-associated distortions of the actin backbone,” Shin said. “This is of relevance not only for hair cell research, but the broader cell biology discipline.”

By understanding this process, scientists hope to be able to develop new ways to fight hearing loss, even if it is caused by simple aging.

Shin also says this work could hold potential implications for dementia conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

These findings have been published in the scientific journal eLife.