New insights turn sound upside down for hearing loss

New research is changing the way we think about hearing aids by unlocking the secret to how our brains process sound and paving the way for improved treatments and technologies.

Jonathan Constantine, the Brisbane-based national audiology manager of hearing device company Oticon, said research from the United States[i] challenges the established approach for hearing aids, which is to provide access to only one voice while minimising background noise.

“The new studies suggest people with hearing loss need access to all sounds for their brains to make sense of their environment,” Mr Constantine said.

“Ideally, hearing aids should support the natural hearing process that occurs in the brain, because our brain is the world’s most sophisticated sound processor. Once our brain forms a complete picture of the soundscape, it can choose what it wants to focus on. This is the foundation for what is known as 'selective attention' which allows us to hear what we want, while filtering out what is not important.

“If a hearing aid provides limited access to sounds, the brain has to work harder to make sense of the sound. This can then diminish the overall quality of hearing.”

Mr Constantine said the new research confirmed Oticon’s fundamental BrainHearing philosophy which is that while the ears collect sound, it’s the brain that makes sense of it.

“We have always believed that the key to treating hearing loss lies in understanding how the brain processes and makes sense of sound,” he said.

Mr Constantine said Oticon’s Opn S hearing aid, released last year, was the first hearing aid proven to support the brain’s natural way of organising sounds.[ii]

“This study reaffirms our approach and will influence our research and technology,” he said.

Mr Constantine said there were strong connections between hearing health and brain health.

“A vicious cycle can start when a person experiences hearing loss and doesn’t treat it effectively. Hearing loss can make social gatherings challenging, so people tend to withdraw which can leave them feeling socially isolated. Over time, the lack of interaction can lead to a drop in mood as well as cognitive decline, both of which can cause further health issues,” he explained.

“Good hearing helps your brain stay fit throughout your life. These sorts of breakthroughs enable us to develop new technologies to help improve quality of life for more than 3.6 million Australians who suffer from hearing loss.”

[i] and [ii] Ng & Man 2019, Oticon Whitepaper

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