People with hearing loss often find following conversations in noisy environments, like restaurants or sporting events, to be one of the biggest challenges. Modern hearing aids include smart features that enhance speech while dampening background noises, but even with those advances, dynamic conversations with background noise remain difficult to navigate for the hearing impaired.
Some recent, and fun, research is focusing on training our brains to separate background noises instead of relying solely on technology. In a study called, Audiomotor Perceptual Training Enhances Speech Intelligibility in Background Noise, 24 hearing aid users were recruited to play an audiogame for eight weeks. All participants had been wearing hearing aids for at least 7 years. Half of the study participants played an audiogame that required them to put together a puzzle by recognizing subtle tonal changes. This game was designed by the researchers to be therapeutic and is based on the theory that music training improves hearing perception. The other half of the study participants played a placebo game that focused on testing memory. The results showed a 25% improvement in the therapeutic game group’s ability to distinguish words in environments with significant background noise distractions as compared to the placebo game group.
“These findings underscore that understanding speech in noisy listening conditions is a whole brain activity and is not strictly governed by the ear,” said Dr. Daniel Polley, study author and Associate Professor of Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School.
Hearing healthcare professionals know that hearing is about a lot more than the sounds captured by our ears. Hearing is a complicated and miraculous process involving cues from both ears that are sent to the brain for processing. The audiogame did not improve the quality of the sound from the ears. Hearing loss, especially age-related hearing loss, is rarely reversible. So, how did playing the game improve speech recognition?
The researchers believe the gains were achieved because the games stimulated better use of cognitive resources. As we age, some of our brain processing slows down and we may lose some language acuity. When combined with a natural decline in ear function, we’re left with a degraded signal being sent to a slower brain. The game essentially trained the participants to focus on speech and to weed out background noises.
Brain-training games have often been touted as a way to improve brain function, but some recent studies have cast doubt on whether any of the skills used in the games transfer to real life. The results of the audiogame study showed that the skills in this game did transfer to real-world communication improvements, especially with the ability to track conversations with multiple speakers and background noise.
The promising results required 3 ½ hours of game time each week, for 8 weeks, and it was noted that the results declined after several months of non-use. The hope is that this study will serve as a blueprint for a model that combines brain training and audiological interventions, like hearing aids, to better combat the effects of hearing loss.