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      Can brain activity tell us how well a child can hear with their cochlear implants?

      Researchers in Nottingham are developing a new way to tell how well young children and babies can hear with their implant, by looking at their brain activity. We’re funding PhD student, Faizah Mushtaq, to develop a tool that could help children with cochlear implants. Faizah tells us more about her exciting research and how you can help.

      By: Faizah Mushtaq | 18 September 2018

      It’s really difficult to know how well babies can hear

      Babies who are born profoundly deaf and who would benefit from cochlear implants can receive them at a very young age, often during their first year of life. Audiologists can assess how well older children can hear with their implants by asking them to repeat back sentences played to them. However, this is not possible with younger children and babies, as they have not developed speech and language skills yet. This makes it very challenging to tell how well these children can hear with their implants, and if the devices are working properly for them.

      What could be the solution?

      It’s really important for children to have access to high-quality sound so that they can develop good speech and language skills. As a result, clinical professionals urgently need a different way (other than using speech tests) to measure how well a child’s implant is working for them. One way to do this could be by looking at the way the brain responds to sounds. We can look at patterns of brain activity to tell whether sound signals from the implant are reaching the hearing regions of the brain. This could tell us whether the quality of sound reaching the brain, and how well the child can hear, needs to be improved by adjusting their cochlear implant’s settings. If we had a tool to do this, then we could identify children who may be struggling to hear at the earliest possible stage, and ensure that they receive the rehabilitation they require as soon as possible to get the most benefit from their cochlear implants.

      How can we look at brain activity in children with cochlear implants?

      Unfortunately, this type of research has been difficult to carry out in the past as most ways of measuring brain activity, such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), are not safe to use with a cochlear implant.

      In our research in Nottingham, we’re using a newer and more suitable technique called fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy), which uses light to measure brain activity. fNIRS is completely safe to use with cochlear implants, child friendly, doesn’t require any injections or other invasive procedures, and doesn’t need the child to lie down extremely still in a scanner!

      An opportunity to get involved!

      We’re currently running a study with children with cochlear implants so that we can develop this tool as a way to measure hearing ability. In this study, we’re looking at whether there is a link between brain activity when someone listens to speech, and how well they can hear speech with their cochlear implant. It’s possible that children who can hear speech very well have different brain responses to children who do not receive a high-quality speech signal from their implant and cannot hear well. If we can understand these differences in brain activity between these children, then we may be able to use brain responses to measure how effective the cochlear implant is in younger children.

      Who can take part?

      We are looking for children who use cochlear implants to take part. We would like children who:

      • are aged 6-12 years
      • wear cochlear implants on both ears
      • have English as their first (native) language.

      What does the study involve?

      Children who take part will first complete a short ‘cognitive ability’ quiz. This involves fun tasks like arranging blocks into particular patterns. After this, they will sit in front of a computer and listen to different types of speech that we play them (some will sound normal and others will sound scrambled). The game here is to press a button each time they see a cartoon clip on the computer screen.

      Once they are familiar and happy with doing this task, the head cap that we use to measure brain activity will be placed on their head. Small lights sit on their head, and these measure how their brain responds to sounds while they complete the same task. This takes around 10 minutes. To make sure that we get good brain recordings, we ask the children to do this twice, but with a break in between.

      At the end of the session, we play the child sentences and ask them to repeat what they’ve heard to us. The entire session lasts approximately one hour, and your child will get a £10 Amazon voucher to say thank you.

      Where and when is the study taking place?

      The study will run over the next six months in Nottingham’s city centre, at the NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre, Ropewalk House, 113 The Ropewalk, Nottingham NG1 5DU. Please note that travel costs will be reimbursed.

      More information

      If you would like to find out more about this study, or if your child would like to take part in this exciting research, then please contact Ms Faizah Mushtaq: faizah.mushtaq@nottingham.ac.uk

      We depend on your donations so we can fund the best hearing and tinnitus research around the world. Donate today and help us continue our vital work into hearing treatments, so that people can live life to the full again.

      You can find out more about the research we’re funding in our biomedical research section.

      If you’re interested in finding out more about our research, sign up to receive our Soundbite newsletter. It’s a monthly email, filled with the latest news about hearing and tinnitus research.

      child having their hearing tested
      Child having their hearing tested

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