For many people with hearing loss, following a conversation in a noisy place can be difficult. Hearing aids can help, but there are limitations to their benefit in noise. For some time we have known that it’s not just your ears that do the listening, but that the brain also plays a big part in processing the information, cleaning it up and making sense of all the information it receives from both your ears.
New research is now looking at how hearing aid users can train their brains to filter out noise and pick up speech more easily by playing a simple brain training game designed to strengthen these skills. Following a hearing aid fitting, learning this filtering process often happens naturally over time for most people. However, it can take months and for some people, it may never happen. This research shows positive signs that this skill can be learnt more quickly through a fun and innovative way.
What did the research look at?
The study was conducted at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear research centre at Harvard Medical School and was a double blind study. This means that neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was given which game (this means that the results are less likely to be biased).
They recruited 24 older adults (with average age of 70) who were long time hearing aid users (average of 7 years). They were then split into 2 training groups and both were asked to spend 3 and a half hours a week for 8 weeks playing a game. One group played a game that was designed to improve the player’s ability to follow conversations and challenged them to monitor subtle changes between what their auditory (hearing) system predicted the sentence was and what the actual sentence was as background noise levels changed. The other group was the “placebo” group. They were asked to play a game which challenged the player’s auditory memory rather than improving their speech understanding in noise.
What did the research find?
As expected, the placebo group did not show any improvement in their ability to hear speech over noise. The group that played the specially designed game showed a 25% improvement in their ability to accurately identify words in increasing levels of noise. Those who showed the most improvement were the ones who played the game most accurately. Even though the game is played in an artificial environment, the skills learnt would be transferable to real world challenges of listening to speech in noise.
What does this mean for the future?
Research like this can have a significant impact on the outcomes of hearing aid fittings as well as our understanding of how the hearing system works. It shows that hearing in noise is a skill which requires more than just being able to hear the sounds with your ears – it is an activity which requires processing in the brain too. If someone is unable to acquire these skills, it would suggest that there is a problem with their ability to process sounds rather than to hear them.
Using these easy and fun self-administered support tools could improve the benefits of hearing aids and allow hearing aid users to continue enjoying activities in noisy places that they may otherwise avoid and miss out on. If the method of using a gaming tool to help improve a person’s ability to pick up speech in noise is proven successful, it would also mean that gaming can be used to help teach other auditory skills and support hearing care providers to improve outcomes for people with hearing aids.