New research into how the brain balances hearing between our ears could improve hearing aids. 18



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As we get older there are so many things we can enjoy but some we aren’t be able to do if we have complete hearing loss. Hearing is such a vital part of our social connection that when we lose it, even just a little bit, we regret ever taking it for granted. And for many years, even scientists have been unable to answers this: why do we lose hearing as we age? And what does the brain have to do with it?

That is, until now. Researchers from the UNSW have been able to find out what causes hearing loss and have connected it back to the brain’s biological process.

This new study, published in the journal Nature Communicationscould provide vital new insight into hearing loss and improve cochlear implants and hearing aids.

According to Professor Gary Housley, senior author of the research paper, his team sought to understand the biological process behind the ‘olivocochlear’ hearing control reflex.

“The balance of hearing between the ears and how we discriminate between sounds versus noise is dependent upon this neural reflex that links the cochlea of each ear via the brain’s auditory control centre,” Professor Housley said.

“Until now we haven’t fully understood what drives the olivocochlear reflex.

“Our hearing is so sensitive that we can hear a pin drop and that’s because of the ‘cochlear amplifier’ in our inner ear. This stems from outer hair cells in the cochlea which amplify sound vibrations.

“When sound intensity increases, the olivocochlear reflex turns down the ‘cochlear amplifier’ to dynamically balance the input of each ear for optimal hearing, sound localisation and to protect hearing”.

It was previously unknown what a small group of auditory nerve fibres did but researchers now know they provide the sensory signal to the brain, in turn amplifying sound.

Mice were used in the groundbreaking study, and those rodents lacking the sensory fibre connection to the cochlear outer hair cells had loud sound presented to one ear and it had no effect on hearing sensitivity in the other ear. Whereas in normal control mice this produced an almost instant suppression of hearing.

The researchers were able to deduce that some of the hearing loss that humans experience as they age may be related to the gradual breakdown of this sensory fibre connection to the outer hair cells.

“A major limitation of hearing aids and cochlear implants is their inability to work in tandem and support good hearing in noisy conditions,” Professor Housley said

“The ultimate goal is for cochlear implants in both ears to communicate with each other so that the brain can receive the most accurate soundscape possible. This research will help us move closer to that goal”.


Tell us, do you or someone close to you wear hearing aids or have hearing problems? What do you think is the cause of that partial or full deafness?

Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. I have worn hearing aids for about 25 years,and it is no fun to have hearing loss.
    Mine is probably genetic .
    Hearing aids can only do so much and are far from perfect .
    This pair I have now ,have been nothing but trouble.
    They were costly but has taken the Audiologists at Australian Hearing up until now to get the program in the aids working to suit my needs.
    They had to be returned to the makers for new parts to be fitted after only 18 months of wear.
    I’ve had to argue long and hard to get them to listen to me.
    So yes it is no fun at all and I would so dearly love to hear properly and I do miss a lot at social gatherings but I am grateful for what I have and now the aids are working okay.
    I can now go to the movies and hear all the dialogue .
    So if you are having problems just persevere.
    It will never be perfect .

    1 REPLY
    • Agree entirely. I have yet to meet an audiologist who really understands. I feel so sorry for older people who – unlike some of us – are afraid/embarrassed to question what they are told and so just discard their costly aids for fear of further humiliation.

  2. I have excellent hearing for my age,however I also have tinnitus which can get bad at times,but I try not to let it get me down.

  3. I worked in the Tyre industry for 39 yrs. this is historically a very noisy workplace. No ear protection was ever worn or compulsory in the early days.
    I have just been awarded digital hearing aides by Workcover due to industrial deafness.
    Amazing I can actually hear things I have not heard for years. These have improved my life 100 percent. I can now hear my wife talking to me, I can now talk and hear on the phone and many other sounds. Unfortunately Workcover say I am not entitled to any compensation for Industrial Deafness. I ask the question why then have they supplied me with digital hearing aides worth $9000.00 dollars if I do not have a hearing problem. Anyway my life has improved since having the digital hearing aides fitted. Life is great once again to be able to hear properly.

    1 REPLY
    • Good for you David! Hearing loss is devastating – my dad is almost deaf and as a result is quite socially isolated. Hope your life continues to improve!

  4. I can tell I’m losing it in my right ear as I don’t get every thing when people are talking or the tv so I searpose one day it will be a hearing aid oh dear

  5. Good hearing aids are expensive and unfortunately the cheaper models don’t work well! There is very little government help or so I have been told!

  6. In UK and Ireland, Specsavers offer excellent hearing aid products at great prices. I got pair in Dublin last October, and noticed immediate improvement. I believe Specsavers do not offer hearing aids here yet… maybe Starts at Sixty members could lobby them?

  7. I have Ménière’s disease and because of that I am gradually loosing my hearing,I have hearing aids in both ears and have to lip read a lot more than I used too these days. Ménière’s disease causes attacks of spinning ,lurching sideways ,Vomiting ,headaches falling. it is different for all who who have it. That’s why Facebook is a real blessing for people like me.

    1 REPLY
    • Try spinning SLOWLY with your arms outstretched 2 or 3 times in one session. Then do it again later even going in the opposite direction… It might help . I have loss of balance because of hearing loss… This I feel helps re-train the brain… An improvement for me so hope it works for you.

  8. I have a hearing in my right ear and my left ear has no hearing at all and as im a self funded retired i dont get any help from government

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