21 February 2006

When hearing is lost in the brain

Age-related hearing loss is not just a case of the ears losing their capability. The ability of the brain to process sound is weakened as well. Modern digital hearing aids with directional microphones may solve some of these problems.

The ears are still crucial for hearing, but preliminary studies in mice indicate that a decrease in certain processes in the brain may make it harder to filter out unimportant sounds.

"Traditionally, scientists studying hearing problems started looking at the ear. But we are finding patients with normal ears who still have trouble understanding a conversation. There are many people who have good inner ears who just don't hear well. That's because their brains are aging," said Dr. Robert D. Frisina of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Failure of the brain
The preliminary research results, published at the annual meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, pointed towards a decreasing ability of the brain, as it ages, to sort and filter out the many sounds channelled in through the ears every day. This indicated that the so-called feedback of the brain to the ears no longer functions fully, causing many to find that they have trouble discriminating between the sounds around them and focus on the important sounds.

”For many people, even if they can still hear sounds as they get older, they still lose the ability to hear and understand speech, because of these brain problems," Frisina said.

People with these problems may find a partial solution in modern digital hearing aids with directional microphones, which can filter out some background noise.

For many people, the decline begins when they reach their 40s or 50s.

New medication
The scientists hope that their research, in time, will make it possible to develop new medication which may alleviate the problem in the brain, just like current medication alleviate other neurological conditions.

Source: www.medicalnewstoday.com and www.nytimes.com (The New York Times)

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