03 September 2014

Staying in darkness could improve hearing

Research suggests that when we can’t see, our hearing improves.

It has been known for years that young, blind children can adapt to improve their sense of hearing due to their lack of vision – the so-called Ray Charles Effect. Research from University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University in the US shows how the same could apply to adults as well.

Temporarily ‘blindness’ boosts hearing

An experiment on healthy mice, conducted by American researchers, showed how temporary vision loss resulted in rewiring in the brains of adult mice, so they could hear much better than before.

To simulate the effect of blindness, the mice, all with normal vision and hearing, were placed in complete darkness for a week. When returned to normal levels of light both their sight and hearing were tested. The tests showed how the mice’s vision was unchanged while their hearing had improved.

Scanning of their brains revealed the rodents’ neurons in their auditory cortex – the brain part devoted to hearing – had changed, firing faster and more powerfully. Thus the mice had become more sensitive to quiet sounds and could discriminate between sounds better.

More permanent change

The enhanced hearing didn’t last, though. After a few weeks, the mice’s hearing was back to normal. However the researchers are optimistic.

The next step is to find a way to make the sensory change more permanent.

The study is published in the journal Neuron.

Sources: http://www.pbs.org/ and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/ 

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