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ONR Fights Back Against Debilitating Noise



ONR’s Noise-Induced Hearing Loss NIHL Program – A Sound Investment. For years, ONR has been a pioneer in funding the research to help restore hearing loss. VA statistics show tinnitus and defective hearing claims combined are more than four times the number of claims for post-traumatic stress disorder or lower back or neck strain, and more than five times the cases for musculoskeletal conditions for trauma induced arthritis. That’s why at the Office of Naval Research, ONR Program Manager, Kurt Yankaskas, is working with an impressive set of research partners to repair hearing loss and prevent it’s occurrence for warfighters of the future.

Kurt Yankaskas

What is the best strategy to give them full protection so that when they’re done with their service career, that they can come back 100 percent.


A sudden intense noise, like an improvised explosive device or IED, or sustained exposure to higher than normal decibel levels, can inflict damage on a sailor or marines hearing organs, without ever causing pain or leaving signs of physical injury. A sound wave travels through the ear canals and reaches the cochlea via the middle ear. In the cochlea the sound wave is transformed into electrical pulses which travel down the nerves to the brain. Then the sound is processed. Hearing skills are a critical war fighting component.

CAPT Ben Balough

Hearing allows us to detect threats that are behind us, also allows us to localize where things are, in both verbal and non-verbal communication. By using hearing protection – ear plugs – sometimes people feel like they don’t get that situational awareness.


With good hearing, a war fighter can identify a target in 40 seconds – with poor hearing, the time more than doubles. With good hearing only one percent of gunners will hear an incorrect command – with poor hearing, the figure soars to 37 percent. With good hearing, 94 percent of enemy’s targets are killed, versus 41 percent with poor hearing. And these are only a few examples of why good hearing is so important to the war fighter. Commander Royce Clifford, MD, Marine Aircraft Group 39 Surgeoner has studied the problem in depth. Commander Clifford talked about three common types of noise exposure.

CDR Royce Clifford

Number one, chronic noise that sailors are exposed to, which is unique in the military. Number two, the pressure waves that marines and soldiers are exposed to in war zones. And number three, artillery essentially, which people can anticipate but it’s louder than you can imagine.


ONR’s goals are to prevent hearing loss by reducing noise in living and working spaces and eventually to reduce other jet related and industrial related noises at their source. ONR sponsored research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has been focused on understanding the mechanism of hearing and hearing loss.

Jian Zuo, Ph.D.

We have been specifically focused on ways to regenerate the sensory cells in the ear.


Principal Investigator, Jonathan Kil is co-founder and CEO of Sound Pharmaceuticals in Seattle. Also, Principal Investigator on two current ONR awards for research and development. One is targeted to help regenerate auditory hair cells.

Jonathan Kil

We’re looking at restoring auditory functional hearing to people who have lost hearing in a very significant way. They are beyond hearing aids and candidates for cochlear implantation.

Kurt Yankaskas

What we’re trying to do is replace something that’s the size of a pea with 40,000 moving parts and that’s the challenge.


Kurt Yankaskas sees the future for hearing protection, not only with a custom molded ear plug but with one outfitted with talk through circuitry.

Kurt Yankaskas

It’s smart enough to know when I have a voice command and I need to hear that and then shut down when it sees an explosive event.

CDR Royce Clifford

We’re not going to leave a generation of sailors and marines that have lost their hearing as a result of the good work that they do.

About Us

The Hearing Center of Excellence fosters and promotes the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, rehabilitation and research of hearing loss and auditory injury. It supports the development, exchange and adoption of best practices, research, measures of effectiveness and clinical care guidelines to reduce the prevalence and cost of hearing loss and tinnitus among Warriors and Veterans. Read more

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