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2022 Award of Merit Recipient

Christoph Eberhard Schreiner, Ph.D, M.D.

Christoph Eberhard Schreiner grew up in a small village in the woods of Northern Germany where his father practiced medicine. Living in a forest and with frequent outings accompanying his father and brother to observe wildlife at dusk and dawn instilled in him a life-long love of nature. Unsurprisingly, Christoph’s favorite subject in high school was biology, closely followed by math and physics. When it was time to select a professional field, however, the quantitative side won out and he started in 1969 to study physics at the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony.  Soon, he joined the Third Institute of Physics working under the tutelage of Prof. Manfred R. Schroeder, his first influential mentor. Prof. Schroeder worked on a wide range of topics, using innovative applications of mathematics to speech, hearing, and concert hall acoustics. There, Christoph learned rigorous quantitative methods and had his first encounter with the concept of modulation transfer functions.  However, several projects in the Institute also had links to biology and he chose to write his Masters and Doctoral theses on the psychophysics of the interactions of non-simultaneously presented sounds.  This period established his life-long fascination with the sense of hearing.

One basic truth quickly became obvious to him: psychophysical phenomena ultimately must be understood on the basis of the biophysics and physiology of the sensory system.  To broaden his perspective on human physiology, Christoph enrolled in medical school right after attaining his Masters degree (Diplom) in 1974.  Moreover, after finishing his physics PhD in 1977, he joined the laboratory of Prof. Otto Creutzfeldt, at the Max-Plank-Institute (MPI) for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, as his first post-doc to embark on actual physiological studies of the auditory system.  Prof. Creutzfeldt, his second influential mentor, was a renowned visual neuroscientist, but wished to further develop the study of the auditory system in his Institute.  Christoph learned from him the art of complex physiological experiments, and the value of utilizing different levels of analysis, from local, intracellular to cellular to more global, hierarchical levels of resolution. In addition, the Creutzfeldt group, that included the rising stars of Sakmann, Neher, and von der Malsburg, had frequent illustrious visitors (e.g., Eccles, Hubel, Katz) from the world of neuroscience who always provoked deep discussions in the group from neuromathematics to neurophilosophy. In this fertile atmosphere, Christoph wrote his Doctoral Thesis in Medicine about the interaction of non-simultaneously presented sounds in the auditory thalamus and cortex.

After finishing medical school in 1980, Prof. Creutzfeldt suggested that Christoph accept a one-year post-doc in the auditory neurophysiology laboratory of Prof. Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), in preparation for taking charge of the Auditory Group at the MPI.  This suggestion proved to be of great significance for Christoph’s future life in many ways. First, the Merzenich group, at that time, was engaged in two developments of major impact: they were in the process of developing a multi-channel cochlear implant device and testing it with the first set of patients, achieving highly promising initial results. Second, Dr. Merzenich was establishing, in the somatosensory system, the essential role of experience and life circumstances on the functional and structural organization of cortical fields.  Thus, Prof. Merzenich became his third influential mentor by emphasizing the need for careful mapping of target structures and exploiting the role of plasticity in understanding the mechanisms of auditory processing and perception. And last, but not least, while working in the Coleman Laboratory at UCSF during that year, he met his wife, Marcia, an audiologist and fellow auditory neuroscientist.  After he returned to the MPI in Germany for a year or so, he decided to follow his heart and returned to the Coleman Laboratory at UCSF where he rose through the academic ranks over the next 35+ years.

 By further developing and applying the principles instilled in him by his mentors, and in collaboration with many bright and talented students and postdocs, his work illuminated many key aspects of auditory cortical information processing and their subcortical origins. Major topics include the principles of information transfer and transformation from synaptic to spiking activity, from thalamus to cortex, and from single neurons to coordinated neuronal ensemble activity. A central aspect of many studies was the focus on stimuli with a complexity somewhere between simple sounds, like tones and noise burst, and natural sounds, like vocalizations, in the form of parametrically accessible temporal and spectral stimulus modulations.  A number of studies established fundamental aspects of the expression and mechanisms of maturation and experience-driven plasticity in auditory cortex. This was further aided by congenial and inspiring collaborations with the neuroanatomist Prof. Jeffery Winer at UC Berkeley starting in the late nineties.  That collaboration also resulted in two jointly conceived and edited books that summarized the basic structure and function of the mammalian Inferior Colliculus and Auditory Cortex.

Supported by the NIH for more than 30 years, he reciprocated by serving on numerous grant review panels, chairing the AUD study section, serving on the NIDCD Council, and representing NIDCD on the Multi-Council Work Group of the BRAIN initiative. He also served for many years on the Tinnitus Research Consortium, a privately funded effort to enhance research into the mechanisms of tinnitus, and as the chair of the scientific advisory board of the large German research cluster ‘Hearing4All’, a broad effort of basic, translational, and applied research to enhance rehabilitative audiology. Another rewarding activity in his profession that he enjoys is mentoring students, post-docs, and junior faculty in his own department, as well as in the neuroscience and bioengineering graduate programs at UCSF and UC Berkeley.

Aside from his professional work, Christoph enjoys world- and science history, antique books, classical music (and some jazz), piano-playing as well as exploring foreign lands.  But spending as much time as possible with his wife, and daughter Christina, brings him the most joy.


Hearing loss can significantly disrupt the ability of children to become mainstreamed in educational environments that emphasize spoken language as a primary means of communication. Similarly, adults who lose their hearing after communicating using spoken language have numerous challenges understanding speech and integrating into social situations. These challenges are particularly significant in noisy situations, where multiple sound sources often arrive at the ears from various directions. Intervention with hearing aids and/or cochlear implants (CIs) has proven to be highly successful for restoring some aspects of communication, including speech understanding and language acquisition. However, there is also typically a notable gap in outcomes relative to normal-hearing listeners. Importantly, auditory abilities operate in the context of how hearing integrates with other senses. Notably, the visual system is tightly couples to the auditory system. Vision is known to impact auditory perception and neural mechanisms in vision and audition are tightly coupled, thus, in order to understand how we hear and how CIs affect auditory perception we must consider the integrative effects across these senses.

We start with Rebecca Alexander, a compelling public speaker who has been living with Usher’s Syndrome, a genetic disorder found in tens of thousands of people, causing both deafness and blindness in humans. Ms. Alexander will be introduced by Dr. Jeffrey Holt, who studies gene therapy strategies for hearing restoration. The symposium then highlights the work of scientists working across these areas. Here we integrate psychophysics, clinical research, and biological approaches, aiming to gain a coherent understanding of how we might ultimately improve outcomes in patients. Drs. Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik are new to the ARO community, and will discuss neurobiology of the visual system as it relates to visual prostheses. Dr. Jennifer Groh’s work will then discuss multi-sensory processing and how it is that vision helps us hear. Having set the stage for thinking about the role of vision in a multisensory auditory world, we will hear from experts in the area of cochlear implants. Dr. René H Gifford will discuss recent work on electric-acoustic integration in children and adults, and Dr. Sharon Cushing will discuss her work as a clinician on 3-D auditory and vestibular effects. Dr. Matthew Winn will talk about cognitive load and listening effort using pupillometry, and we will end with Dr. Rob Shepherd’s discussion of current work and future possibilities involving biological treatments and neural prostheses. Together, these presentations are designed to provide a broad and interdisciplinary view of the impact of sensory restoration in hearing, vision and balance, and the potential for future approaches for improving the lives of patients.

Kirupa Suthakar, PhD - Dr Kirupa Suthakar is a postdoctoral fellow at NIH/NIDCD, having formerly trained as a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Harvard Medical School and doctoral student at Garvan Institute of Medical Research/UNSW Australia.  Kirupa's interest in the mind and particular fascination by how we are able to perceive the world around us led her to pursue a research career in auditory neuroscience.  To date, Kirupa's research has broadly focused on neurons within the auditory efferent circuit, which allow the brain to modulate incoming sound signals at the ear.  Kirupa is active member of the spARO community, serving as the Chair Elect for 2021.



I began studying the vestibular system during my dissertation research at the Università di Pavia with Professors Ivo Prigioni and GianCarlo Russo. I had two postdoctoral fellowships, first at the University of Rochester with Professor Christopher Holt and then at the University of Illinois at Chicago with Professors Jonathan Art and Jay Goldberg.

My research focuses on characterizing the biophysics of synaptic transmission between hair cells and primary afferents in the vestibular system. For many years an outstanding question in vestibular physiology was how the transduction current in the type I hair cell was sufficient, in the face of large conductances on at rest, to depolarize it to potentials necessary for conventional synaptic transmission with its unique afferent calyx.

In collaboration with Dr. Art, I overcame the technical challenges of simultaneously recording from type I hair cells and their enveloping calyx afferent to investigate this question. I was able to show that with depolarization of either hair cell or afferent, potassium ions accumulating in the cleft depolarize the synaptic partner. Conclusions from these studies are that due to the extended apposition between type I hair cell and its afferent, there are three modes of communication across the synapse. The slowest mode of transmission reflects the dynamic changes in potassium ion concentration in the cleft which follow the integral of the ongoing hair cell transduction current. The intermediate mode of transmission is indirectly a result of this potassium elevation which serves as the mechanism by which the hair cell potential is depolarized to levels necessary for calcium influx and the vesicle fusion typical of glutamatergic quanta. This increase in potassium concentration also depolarizes the afferent to potentials that allow the quantal EPSPs to trigger action potentials. The third and most rapid mode of transmission like the slow mode of transmission is bidirectional, and a current flowing out of either hair cell or afferent into the synaptic cleft will divide between a fraction flowing out into the bath, and a fraction flowing across the cleft into its synaptic partner.

The technical achievement of the dual electrode approach has enabled us to identify new facets of vestibular end organ synaptic physiology that in turn raise new questions and challenges for our field. I look forward with great excitement to the next chapter in my scientific story.


Charles C. Della Santina, PhD MD is a Professor of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery and Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he directs the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Implant Center and the Johns Hopkins Vestibular NeuroEngineering Laboratory.

As a practicing neurotologic surgeon, Dr. Della Santina specializes in treatment of middle ear, inner ear and auditory/vestibular nerve disorders. His clinical interests include restoration of hearing via cochlear implantation and management of patients who suffer from vestibular disorders, with a particular focus on helping individuals disabled by chronic postural instability and unsteady vision after bilateral loss of vestibular sensation. His laboratory’s research centers on basic and applied research supporting development of vestibular implants, which are medical devices intended to partially restore inner ear sensation of head movement. In addition to that work, his >90 publications include studies characterizing inner ear physiology and anatomy; describing novel clinical tests of vestibular function; and clarifying the effects of cochlear implantation, vestibular implantation, superior canal dehiscence syndrome and intratympanic gentamicin therapy on the inner ear and central nervous system.  Dr. Della Santina is also the founder and CEO/Chief Scientific Officer of Labyrinth Devices LLC, a company dedicated to bringing novel vestibular testing and implant technology into routine clinical care.

Andrew Griffith received his MD and PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University in 1992. He completed his general surgery internship and a residency in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Michigan in 1998. He also completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in the Department of Human Genetics as part of his training at the University of Michigan. In 1998, he joined the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) in the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). He served as a senior investigator, the chief of the Molecular Biology and Genetics Section, the chief of the Otolaryngology Branch, and the director of the DIR, as well as the deputy director for Intramural Clinical Research across the NIH Intramural Research Program. His research program identifies and characterizes molecular and cellular mechanisms of normal and disordered hearing and balance in humans and mouse models. Two primary interests of his program have been hearing loss associated with enlargement of the vestibular aqueduct, and the function of TMC genes and proteins. The latter work lead to the discovery that the deafness gene product TMC1 is a component of the hair cell sensory transduction channel. Since July of 2020, he has served as the Senior Associate Dean of Research and a Professor of Otolaryngology and Physiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Gwenaëlle S. G. Géléoc obtained a PhD in Sensory Neurobiology from the University of Sciences in Montpellier (France) in 1996. She performed part of her PhD training at the University of Sussex, UK where she characterized sensory transduction in vestibular hair cells and a performed a comparative study between vestibular and cochlear hair cells. Gwenaelle continued her training as an electrophysiologist at University College London studying outer hair cell motility and at Harvard Medical School studying modulation of mechanotransduction in vestibular hair cells. As an independent investigator at the University of Virginia, she expanded this work and characterized the developmental acquisition of sensory transduction in mouse vestibular hair cells, the developmental acquisition of voltage-sensitive conductances in vestibular hair cells and the tonotopic gradient in the acquisition of sensory transduction in the mouse cochlea. This work along with quantitative spatio-temporal studies performed on several hair cell mechanotransduction candidates lead her to TMC1 and 2 and long-term collaborations with Andrew Griffith and Jeff Holt. Dr. Géléoc is currently Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology, at Boston Children’s Hospital where she continues to study molecular players involved in the development and function of hair cells of the inner ear and develops new therapies for the treatment of deafness and balance, with a particular focus on Usher syndrome.

Jeff Holt earned a doctorate from the Department of Physiology at the University of Rochester in 1995 for his studies of inward rectifier potassium channels in saccular hair cells.  He went on to a post-doctoral position in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, where he characterized sensory transduction and adaptation in hair cells and developed a viral vector system to transfect cultured hair cells.  Dr. Holt’s first faculty position was in the Neuroscience Department at the University of Virginia.  In 2011 the lab moved to Boston Children’s Hospital / Harvard Medical School.  Dr. Holt is currently a Professor in the Departments of Otolaryngology and Neurology in the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center.  Dr. Holt and his team have been studying sensory transduction in auditory and vestibular hair cells over the past 20 years, with particular focus on TMC1 and TMC2 over the past 12 years.  This work lead to the discovery that TMC1 forms the hair cell transduction channel.  His work also focuses on development gene therapy strategies for genetic hearing loss.