Lisa Cunningham

Senior Investigator

B.A.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Major: Audiology

M.A.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Major: Audiology

Ph.D.
Neuroscience
University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Post-doctoral Research Training
Auditory Neuroscience
Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research Center
University of Washington, Seattle

Our research focuses on the mechanosensory hair cells in the inner ear that are responsible for normal hearing and balance functions.  Specifically, we are interested in the molecular signals that regulate the survival, health, and death of these cells.  Mammalian hair cells are not regenerated after they die, so in humans these cells must survive and function for up to a century in order to transduce sound and head movement into the neural signals of hearing and balance. During this lengthy period of time, hair cells may encounter multiple potentially toxic stresses, including exposure to excessive sound and/or to therapeutic drugs with ototoxic side effects. Hair cells must be able to respond rapidly and effectively to such cytotoxic stimuli if they are to survive and continue to function over the course of a lifetime.
Two major research areas are being investigated in my lab.  From a basic science perspective, we are interested in the cellular and molecular mechanisms that determine whether a hair cell under stress ultimately lives or dies.  From a clinical/translational perspective, we are examining how we can use the basic science of hair cell death and survival to guide the rational development of clinical therapies aimed at preventing hearing loss in humans.  Our work has shown that stress-induced production of heat shock proteins (HSPs) protects the inner ear against otherwise lethal stresses.  More recently we have shown that a neighboring cell type, the glia-like supporting cells, can protect sensory hair cells from dying. This work indicates that supporting cells are important determinants of the fate (i.e., life or death) of hair cells under stress. Currently the major translational goal in the lab is to develop clinical therapies that prevent hearing loss in patients receiving ototoxic drugs, such as aminoglycoside antibiotics or cisplatin.  These are important drugs that save many lives, but they also result in permanent hearing loss in a significant portion of the patients who receive them.  We are examining methods of protecting the hearing of these patients without interfering with the therapeutic benefit of the drugs themselves. 

NIH, NIDCD, Porter Neuroscience Research Center, 35A Convent Dr., Rm. 1D971, Bethesda, MD 20892-3729
Neuroscience and Cognitive Science
Phone: (301) 443-2766
Email: lisa.cunningham@nih.gov