$1.6 M to study 'feel-good' brain chemical and hearing

February 26th, 2014
Research scientist Christine Portfors will study how the brain chemical dopamine influences hearing with support from the National Institutes of Health. The work may ultimately lead to better therapies for people with hearing loss and communication problems.

The $1.6 million will fund Portfors, an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences and head of the hearing and communication lab at Washington State University Vancouver, and collaborator David Perkel, professor of biology and otolaryngology at the University of Washington.

Parkinson's disease and love songs

The study is the first to integrate multiple techniques in exploring how dopamine affects the brain cells, synapses and neural circuits involved in auditory processing.

Loss of dopamine in the brain is a characteristic of Parkinson's disease, and patients with Parkinson's have some difficulty not only producing speech but also perceiving and making sense of it. Little is known about why this is so.

Dopamine is also related to the "expectation of reward," and particular sounds or communication itself can be rewarding. As Portfors explained, "A song you love or a familiar voice can make you feel good. How do you relate the hearing part to the feeling good part?

"Because dopamine is related to the expectation of something rewarding happening, we think dopamine actually alters how your neurons respond to particular sounds or voices," she said.

Singing mice and economic boost

The research will be conducted with mice. Male mice sing in the presence of females, and their sounds can be recorded and played back to females to see how their auditory neurons respond with and without dopamine. The research will lead to future studies with genetically engineered Parkinson's-type mice to see how their auditory systems differ from those of normal mice.

The study will increase the understanding of speech-processing and communication disorders. The grant, totaling $1,627,446 over five years, was awarded by the NIH's National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

"Not only is this funding important for human health, it is important for the local economy," Portfors said. "It will pay a number of WSU Vancouver graduate and undergraduate students to work in the lab. Thus, students can make money while gaining relevant skills for future careers in health professions."

Provided by Washington State University

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