A major scientific award given to a renowned hearing loss researcher

A major scientific award given to a renowned hearing loss researcher

M. Charles Liberman, PhD, whose research has forever changed the way professionals understand the underlying causes of hearing loss, has received a major scientific prize from France’s La Fondation Pour l’Audition.

The award is one of the highest honors given in hearing science and was presented to Dr. Liberman at a ceremony in Paris, France on 20 October 2022. The Grand Scientific Prize carries an honorarium of €100,000.

La Fondation Pour l’Audition is a public interest foundation committed to combining research, health care and disease prevention in hearing loss. As part of this mission, it rewards and supports pioneering hearing researchers.

Dr. Liberman, the Harold F. Schuknecht Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Harvard Medical School, previously served for more than 25 years as director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Mass Eye and Ear, where he remains an investigator. During his five-year career, Dr. Liberman cutting-edge research into the pathological causes of hearing loss rooted in the inner ear. In 2009 Dr. Liberman co-discovered a phenomenon called cochlear synaptopathy, also referred to as “hidden hearing loss,” a groundbreaking discovery that has since informed the causes of hearing loss worldwide.

Research by Dr. Liberman overturned the dogma of what was known about the cause of hearing loss in the inner ear, and this work had a profound and lasting impact on the entire field of hearing science. His work and leadership at Mass Eye and Ear has made Eaton-Peabody Laboratories the world’s leading center for hearing research, and we congratulate him on this well-deserved recognition of his impressive career and lasting contributions.”

Mark A. Varvares, MD, FACS, Chief of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Mass Eye and Ear and John W. Merriam/William W. Montgomery Professor and Chair of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Harvard Medical School

The transformative discovery of hidden hearing loss

Hearing loss affects more than 5 percent of the world’s population, an estimated 430 million individuals, according to the World Health Organization.

One of the most common complaints hearing doctors receive from patients is difficulty hearing in noisy environments. However, many of these patients do not show measurable hearing loss deficits on the audiogram, generally considered the gold standard of hearing testing. An audiogram measures the loss of hair cells, the sensory cells inside the inner ear. Dr. Liberman and Sharon Kujawa, PhD, Sheldon and Dorothea Buckler Chair in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Eye and Ear Surgery Center and Professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Harvard Medical School, uncovered the basis of this discrepancy in 2009 when their key the study showed that noise exposure and aging first damage the synapses that connect hair cells to auditory nerve fibers and ultimately transmit nerve signals to the brain. This hearing impairment is now known as cochlear synaptopathy. Because audiograms measure hair cell function, this synaptic loss is usually undocumented, inspiring the popular term “hidden hearing loss.”

Dr. Liberman’s research has also shown that it is possible to successfully restore connections between hair cells and auditory nerve fibers in animal models by administering therapeutics called neurotrophins. This work has led biotech companies to develop new therapies to treat hearing loss in humans.

About Dr. Liberman

Dr. Liberman received his doctorate in physiology from Harvard University in 1976 before joining Mass Eye and Ear as a research fellow. In 1996, he was named director of Eaton-Peabody Laboratories, helping to foster tremendous growth and an endowment that grew to $12 million for hearing research. Dr. Liberman also served from 2011-2022 as vice-chairman of basic research at the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. He is a past president of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology.

Dr. Liberman has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed articles during his career. He and his colleagues continue to study hidden hearing loss and other hearing disorders, such as tinnitus, in hopes of developing more sensitive tests and new treatments. Future research led by Dr. Liberman will be split between a National Institutes of Health (NIH) P50 joint grant on hidden hearing loss and an individual NIH R01 grant on the mechanisms and potential treatments of noise-induced hearing loss in animal models.


Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary

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