COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND — Researchers at the University of Maryland, using an $8 million grant from The National Institute on Aging, are collaborating to investigate hearing loss and brain function. The five-year grant will fund three such projects at the university, which researchers hope to begin as soon as possible.
It is estimated that there are nearly 25 million seniors in the US today with age-related hearing loss. Within the next decade, that number is expected to increase by one third, to 35 million.
“The effects of hearing loss are not only the incapacity to understand speech and hear it, but it can lead to isolation [and] depression, and there are also connections between hearing loss and cognitive decline. The overall goal of this project is to help people with age-related hearing loss by training their brains to process speech better.” –Sandra Gordon-Salant, PhD, lead investigator
Research: Hearing Loss and the Brain
The federal grant money will help fund three different projects over the next five years at the university.
Project 1: Examining speech and noise in the auditory cortex
The first research project will look at speech and noise in the auditory cortex. The study aims to determine if engaged, or active, listening can improve speech recognition in study participation, versus passive listening.
Project 2: Processing acoustic signals
The second project will look at strategies to help people process acoustic signals–such as rapid speech, which becomes more difficult with age.
“You can treat hearing loss with a device such as a hearing aid or cochlear implant, and it will make sounds more audible. But that doesn’t compensate for changes that occur with aging beyond the ear. Some problems aren’t simply not being able to hear, but not being able to process it well either.” –Samira Anderson, PhD
Subjects in the study aim to increase the rate of speech they are listening to over time through two speech training sessions, as well as being ‘pulse trained’ — which consists of a series of clicks that are presented to listeners at different rates.
Project 3: Training brain to listen to speech in noise
In the third project, older listeners that have difficulty understanding speech in loud environments will complete a series of simulated video exercises with varying levels of noise, trying to determine what speakers are saying. Study participants will be scanned before and after the study using an electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) to monitor the brain’s activity.
Research Could Lead to New Treatment Approach
For all the studies, the researchers will test young adults with normal hearing, adults over the age of 65 with normal hearing and hearing-impaired adults over the age of 65 as well. All participants are required to be native English speakers.
The projects will also include an administrative group, a signal processing and data analysis group and a team in charge of the recruitment and intake evaluation of more than 1,000 study participants. Across the university, there are as many as 10 people working on the projects.
Dr. Samira Anderson expressed her excitement at being a part of the research:
“I worked as an audiologist before deciding to pursue research and part of the reason for the switch was I was frustrated with the limitations on what we could offer patients, because hearing aids are not enough to help certain people. Doing this project fulfills that dream of being able to investigate a new kind of treatment approach that might make some real changes and help a huge amount of people.”
Source: UMD, DBK