University College London
Torsten originally wanted to become a sound engineer, studying a mixture of electrical engineering, computer science and acoustics. Through this, he grew interested in the perception of sound, and the physiology of the auditory system.
He began work in an Ear, Nose and Throat research department, studying otoacoustic emissions (the ‘echoes’ produced by cells in the inner ear in response to detecting a sound), before starting work towards his PhD at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton. Originally, Torsten wanted to become a sound engineer, studying a mixture of electrical engineering, computer science and acoustics. It was in this way that he became interested in the perception of sound, and the physiology of the cochlea and the auditory brain.
More about Torsten’s work
He moved to University College London (UCL) to study spatial hearing (how we locate where a sound is coming from), focussing on how the brain processes interaural timing differences (the tiny differences in the time it takes for a sound to reach each ear depending on where the sound is coming from) to locate the source of a sound.
Working at the UCL Ear Institute, he is now an Associate Professor in Auditory Biophysics, specialising in the perception of very low frequency sounds and cochlear mechanics (how the cochlea turns sound information from a vibration to an electrical signal that the brain can interpret).
Torsten’s approaches to hearing research
Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is an imaging technology, similar to a CT or ultrasound scan. It is used as a diagnostic tool in ophthalmology (the medical department that diagnoses and treats eye disorders) and has revolutionised the diagnosis of eye problems by allowing the enhanced imaging of cells in the retina (a structure in the eye that detects light and allows us to see).
This technology has recently been adapted to detect the tiny vibrations of the sound-sensing hair cells within the cochlea when they detect sound. The enhanced data obtained with this technology has begun to challenge traditional views of how the cochlea works and is improving our understanding of the processes involved in how the cochlea detects sounds and transmits this information to the brain.
With the adaptation of the OCT technology to hearing research, I expect revolutionary insights into why the cochlea is so amazingly sensitive to sound, how it adjusts to the external sound environment and how it can protect itself from exposure to loud noise. I am convinced that this understanding will lead to new strategies to protect and improve hearing.
The cochlea is difficult to access – it is embedded in the skull and surrounded by bone. This makes it difficult to access for research purposes, but also poses significant challenges for diagnosis and treatment as well.
Hearing problems are so common. They will affect all of us at some point in life, often leading to problems in communicating with others, including friends and family members – this causes frustration and can lead to people becoming isolated or excluded.
Most young people are unaware that hearing loss and tinnitus can have life-changing effects. As they have such a broad impact on so many people, I think it is important to search for ways to prevent and reverse hearing problems.
I like the multi-disciplinary aspect of hearing research, as it brings together physicists, audiologists, engineers, physiologists, geneticists, acousticians, clinicians, psychologists, molecular biologists and many more.
RNID not only provides invaluable benefit for deaf people and those with hearing loss and tinnitus in the UK, but also for the hearing research community. RNID has a clear vision on the future of hearing health care. My funding applications to RNID benefit from the expertise of their review panels, which consist of hearing health care professionals and scientists; I can trust that they have the necessary insight to recognise the need and likely impact on hearing health care of my research proposals.
I am immensely grateful to RNID for my Discovery Research Grant to support the development of new diagnostic tests that will help to evaluate the suitability of new treatments for individual patients. RNID also funds one of my PhD students, who will develop technology that will distribute these treatments evenly throughout the cochlea. This is a current challenge for drug delivery into the cochlea. RNID’s PhD studentships ensure that the UK remains a strong contributor to global hearing research.