Problems with hearing and balance are the most common sensory deficits on the planet. A research project in the department of neuroscience at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) Medical School, Charlottesville, hopes to make some headway on this pervasive health issue. The research team's goal is to provide a foundation for understanding both the normal physiology and pathophysiology of the inner ear, which will help lead to the treatment of inner ear dysfunction.

U.Va. researchers Andrea Lelli, Eric Stauffer, and Jeffrey Holt recently won the $25,000 PI (Physik Instrumente) NanoInnovation Grant for a research proposal titled A Fast Mechanical Nanostimulator to Study Sensory Transduction and Amplification in the Inner Ear. The project involves the study of hair cells and how they work, as hair cells are actually tiny mechano transducers located in the sensory portion of the inner ear. These cells transform high frequency nanometric mechanical displacements into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain. Yet many aspects of hair cell function remain unknown because biophysical studies of hair cell mechanotransduction have been limited by unreliable and slow methods for stimulus delivery, according to the researchers. The team plans to build a nanostimulator using PI piezo actuators and a 3-axis piezo nanopositioning stage that can reliably stimulate sensory hair cells at frequencies up to 10 kHz with motions that range from a couple of nanometers to a couple of microns. The hope is to understand how stimuli from the external world such as sound, gravity, and rotational and linear head movements are converted into electrical signals and how the information is encoded and transmitted to the brain. For more information, visit pi-usa.us.