Indiana University, USA
Laura Hurley obtained a bachelor’s degree in Biology at the University of Virginia and completed her PhD in Zoology at the University of Washington. She took up a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin and now leads a research group in the Department of Biology at Indiana University Bloomington.
From her earliest participation in research as an undergraduate, Laura has been lucky to learn from talented scientists and to conduct research in a range of fields, from circadian science (study of the daily biological rhythms found in most living things) to motor (movement) and sensory systems.
More about Laura’s work
This broad training has informed her approach to understanding how context influences vocal communication and sound processing in animal models, as it does in human listeners. She gives the following example: if someone asks you out for a cup of coffee (or tea), your answer might depend on who has asked you, whether you are sleepy, or whether coffee keeps you up at night. The responses of animals like mice to communication signals likewise depends on the identities of social partners, their internal state, or prior experience.
Laura and members of her lab have found that neurochemical systems (chemical processes related to the nervous system and brain) such as the serotonergic system, which is involved in the control of mood and social behaviors, integrate information on context and subsequently alter how the auditory (hearing) system responds to vocal signals. Over the past few years, they have focused their efforts on the role of prior social experience/social isolation, and its effects on the serotonergic system.
Laura’s approaches to hearing research
When I teach classes on sensory biology, a central theme is that senses are windows to the brain, in that sensory systems carry information about the external world that can affect mood, motivation, or cognition.
In this light, the finding that hearing loss in middle age is associated with cognitive decline and depression presents a deep lesson on how connected the auditory system is with other neural systems, and on the overlap of hearing with other aspects of brain function, like cognition.
It emphasizes that the auditory system is not simply a route for information to reach the brain, but can also be important for the maintenance of behavioural health. To me, understanding the mechanisms underlying these connections is one of the great current challenges in auditory neuroscience.
The field of auditory neuroscience and behaviour offers great scope to work on parallel questions of how brain systems underlie natural behaviours, and how these same systems can contribute to problems in auditory perception. It is this dual nature that I find so attractive, as illustrated by the research that my students and I do. We work on a neurochemical system that allows animals to adjust to continually changing internal and external conditions, but that may also contribute to dysfunction following hearing loss and social isolation.
A second attraction of working in hearing research are the wonderful colleagues. Hearing researchers are curious, dedicated, and creative. This means that there are continually interesting new discoveries to read about on exciting aspects of animal hearing that can shed light on human hearing and on advances in treatments for hearing disorders.
I hope that this research will provide a model for one of the ways that hearing loss and social isolation interact in affecting a neurochemical system that has widespread influence in the brain, and how these changes correspond to social and anxiety-like behaviours.
Once established, a model could be a basis for testing strategies for combatting some of the negative consequences of the mix of hearing loss and social isolation. This could occur through testing behavioural interventions such as enriched physical and social environments, or drug treatments targeting the serotonin system.
Being funded at the beginning stages of this project means that RNID has invested in our work at a crucial point in its development. We hope that this investment will allow our discoveries in this area to grow, even after our term of funding with RNID.
RNID funding of this project will also support team science. Our team consists of collaborators like Dr. Amanda Lauer at Johns Hopkins University who has pioneered research in anxiety-like behavior following hearing loss in mouse models.
Colleagues also include research associates, graduate students, and undergraduate interns. Participants at every level will contribute to accomplishing the goals of the project, and intellectual exchange within this group will sharpen the science. The involvement of graduate and undergraduate students also means that RNID’s funding of this work is providing training for the next generation of hearing researchers.