WSU Vancouver professor receives $1.6 million to study how dopamine affects hearing

Fri, 02/21/2014 - 8:30am -- brenda_alling

VANCOUVER, WASH. — The National Institutes of Health has awarded $1.6 million to Washington State University Vancouver research scientist Christine Portfors to study how the brain chemical dopamine influences the way we hear.

Portfors, an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences and head of the Hearing and Communication Lab, will collaborate on the research with David Perkel, professor of biology and otolaryngology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This collaborative study is the first to integrate multiple techniques in exploring how dopamine affects the brain cells, synapses and neural circuits involved in auditory processing. “Our combined expertise means we can learn more about the role dopamine plays in our hearing,” Portfors said.

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. Investigating the role that dopamine plays in human communication may ultimately lead to increased therapies for people with hearing loss or communication problems.

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? Why does hearing a particular voice on the phone make you feel differently from hearing someone else? 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.”

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.” 

NIH is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is the nation’s medical research agency. It is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world.

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Brenda Alling, Office of Marketing and Communications, 360-546-9601, brenda_alling@vancouver.wsu.edu