Brain Sciences


Difficulty hearing in noisy places could be fault of brain not ears

20 November 2019

Difficulty hearing in noisy pubs or cafes could be related to the brain’s ability to separate sounds, which can be picked up in a newly-designed test created by UCL researchers.

people socialising

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, designed by researchers from UCL’s Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging (WCHN), goes beyond standard hearing exams which only examine the function of the cochlea. Instead it focuses on brain processes for grouping sounds, which could better identify hearing issues in noisy places that are missed by existing tests.

Lead author Dr Emma Holmes (WCHN and UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology) explains that the new test goes beyond existing speech-in-noise tests as it is independent of linguistic ability. It could therefore help young children or people who are not native speakers of the language where they reside.

“The test could also help to assess how well people will do with a new hearing aid or cochlear implant once they have become accustomed to it,” said Dr Holmes.

“It’s difficult to test speech perception immediately after someone gets a cochlear implant, because it takes a while for people to adjust. Therefore, if we test speech perception immediately after implantation, it may be a poor predictor of how well someone will be able to hear in realistic settings after adapting to their implant. These non-linguistic tests may be better predictors,” she explains.

“Difficulty hearing in noisy environments is common but might occur for different reasons. Some people’s brains may be less adept at grouping different sound sources and tracking them separately while slight differences in general hearing thresholds, even within the healthy, normal range, might also contribute.”

Senior author Professor Tim Griffiths, a Wellcome Senior Clinical Fellow, Professor of Cognitive Neurology at Newcastle University, and Honorary at WCHN, added: “There is a strong link between hearing loss and dementia. This will give us a new tool that might be a stronger predictor than simple hearing tests because it measures a type of hearing that requires a brain mechanism well beyond initial sound processing in the ear."

The researchers are now trialling the test in people with new cochlear implants.