The act of hearing is like a ballroom dance, scientist Jaime García-Añoveros says. Tiny hair cells lined up in the outer ear leap and sway, transmitting sound’s vibrations to other hair cells in the inner ear that carry information via nerves to the brain. Exquisitely sensitive to frequency, these hair cells detect highs and lows, music and noise, in something like a ballet. But the music stops when these cells are damaged, by noise or some cancer drugs or antibiotics. The cells can live as long as we do, but once they die, they cannot be regenerated.
“The cells in your skin or cells in your intestines, they can live a couple of weeks. But these cells can live a century,” García-Añoveros said about hair cells in the ear. “It’s amazing, but they’re not immortal. And when they die, before we die, we lose our hearing.”