Audiologists in various parts of the world have heard of Brain Hearing due to hearing aid marketing materials and training and continuing education programs. This concept, now called by various marketing names, is beginning to become part of many hearing aid products…but WHY? Where does this idea come from? How long has it been around? Is it a passing fluke or really the next generation of auditory research that will facilitate better hearing?
Brief History of the Study of Cognitive Hearing
Most of the audiologists have had an orientation to Hearing Science as part of the study of their discipline. In these courses, students study the usual topics of sound measurement, harmonics, acoustics, psychoacoustics, anatomy and physiology of the auditory mechanism and other concepts fundamental to the hearing field. Some of these basic hearing science students go on to become hearing scientists with various orientations to their research. While hearing science is essential to understanding hearing, it is the collaboration with other scientists that has brought real success in not only understanding the uniqueness of hearing, but other disciplines as well.
One of many specialized areas of study, Cognitive Hearing Science (CHS) is sort of hearing science on steroids. According to Lunner (2017), the CHS aims to find correlations between physiological activities and cognitive processes that are challenged by hearing impairment. Cognitive hearing scientists study and research the physiological-cognitive basis of hearing and hearing impairment. Further, they study how the hearing brain interacts with various types of signal processing within a hearing instrument, in listening environments with varying degrees of challenge. CHS brings together researchers in speech, psychoacoustics, auditory neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, computer science, and other areas to discuss the cognitive/perceptual processing of complex acoustic signals like speech, music and natural sounds. This multidisciplinary approach is necessary to breech the artificial barriers between descriptions of peripheral and central mechanisms, between speech sounds and other complex sounds and, moreover, between theoretical interpretation and practical application.
Arlinger and colleagues (2009) indicate that the evolution of interdisciplinary approaches to research of the mind and brain began with the formation of new societies, such as the Society for Neuroscience. Founded in 1969, the Society for Neuroscience brought together scientists and physicians studying the brain and the nervous system and spawned other societies that have generated cognitive study worldwide. The Cognitive Science Society , founded in 1979, was established to promote research across traditional disciplines, including Artificial Intelligence, Linguistics, Anthropology, Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Education, so that interchange between researchers in these disciplines could advance the common goal of understanding the human mind. By 1994, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society was formed to unite brain, mind, and behavior researchers. More recently, in 2001, the Vision Sciences Society was formed to advance interdisciplinary understanding of vision and its relation to cognition, action and the brain. Of special interest to cognitive auditory research the Auditory Cognitive Science Society (now called the Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience Society) held its first meeting held its first meeting in 2007 and has recently concluded their 2017 meeting. The concept of brain hearing is the product of these dedicated scientists and their interdisciplinary interaction that is leading to breakthroughs that allow humans can communicate with devices for better hearing.
Types of Cognitive Hearing Research Being Conducted
Researchers are working on many modes to cognitive hearing. One project that offers merit is that of the use of Electroencephalography (EEG) medical measurements and pupillometry. The use of these and other methods allows for the quantification of the process of attention and listening efforts with the goal of designing hearing devices capable of providing important information about the patient’s level of attention and the listening effort required through direct physiological monitoring. It is thought that these measures could be able to control the characteristics of hearing aid signal processing for better speech understanding. Lunner (2017) predicts that, “In future, hearing devices will allow the user to selectively amplify the sounds of his/her choice while leaving other background noises unamplified. This will provide the end-user with a much more personalized hearing compensation experience, which allows for increased sense of control. Furthermore, we can use the enormous amount of outcome-measurements and evaluation data extracted from these devices to advance the field of audiology even more.” It is thought that this could revolutionize hearing devices and how audiologists measure their success. In 2017, the newest generation of hearing instruments from the big 6 hearing aid manufacturers have products that use concepts generated from cognitive hearing research. Click here or on the picture for a video of a project at Eriksholm Research Centre.
Recently, researchers from the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science published a breakthrough article in Journal of Neural Engineering. Dr. Nima Mesgrani and his team demonstrated that a cognitively controlled assistive hearing device can automatically amplify one speaker among many. To do so, their model used a deep neural network that automatically separated each of the speakers from the mixture and compared each speaker with the neural data from the user’s brain. The speaker that best matched the neural data was then amplified to assist the user. Dr. Mesgrani said of their study, “Our system demonstrates a significant improvement in both subjective and objective speech quality measures — almost all of our subjects said they wanted to continue to use it.” He further stated that “Our novel framework for Auditory Attention Decoding (AAD) bridges the gap between the most recent advancements in speech processing technologies and speech prosthesis research and moves us closer to the development of realistic hearing aid devices that can automatically and dynamically track a user’s direction of attention and amplify an attended speaker.”
Brain Hearing is, indeed, marketing. It is unusual in that it is marketing with a sound scientific basis that comes from the development of the cognitive interdisciplinary sciences where researchers from various focused disciplines, including hearing science, around the world communicate and share their findings. The evolution and development of auditory cognitive neuroscience is definitely not a fluke but rather offers great promise to the hearing impaired and their use of the high performance hearing devices of the future.
Arlinger, S.,Lunner, T., Lyxell, B., & Pichora-Fuller, K. (2009). The emergence of cognitive hearing science. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, (50), 5, 371-384. Retrieve August 15, 2017.
Eriksholm Research Centre. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
O’Sullivan, J., Chen, Z., Herro, J., McKhann, G., Sheth, S., Mehta, A., & Mesgrani, N. (2017). Neural decoding of attentional selection in muti-speaker environments without access to clean sources. Journal of Neural Engineering, Vol 14 (5). Retrieved August 15, 2017.
Lunner, T. (2017). Cognitive Hearing Science. Eriksholm Research Centre,