If you avoid noisy restaurants because you can't hear your spouse or you have to turn your TV up so loud that the neighbors complain, you are not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from some form of hearing loss, and as you age, some loss is inevitable for many.
Hearing aids can help amplify sound, but this doesn't necessarily help you distinguish between words when there's a lot of background noise. So even with hearing aids you may still struggle to hear the details of your friend's breakup over the salad course, if the table next to you is yucking it up.
"Dissatisfaction with hearing aids can be high, largely, when they don't always help in real world situations like in noisy rooms," said Daniel Polley, an associate professor of Otolaryngology at Harvard Medical School.
Polley and a team of scientists have worked for 13 years developing an audio game they hope will improve people's hearing in real life. Results of their latest study are published in the latest Current Biology.
You may joke that your inability to hear the boss has benefits, but hearing problems can hurt your overall health. "Not hearing can lead to social isolation and we know that social situations are a real lifeline to your emotional health," Polley said. "If your social world gets cut off that can lead to a broad spectrum of cognitive decline as you age."
Instead of focusing on the ear, Polley and his colleagues' audio game targets the brain. That's because you don't merely hear sound with your ears, your brain makes sense of what you hear.
Here's how it works: If someone near you calls out at a party, that sound will pass through your ears to tiny hair cells. Each sound carries its own vibration impacting the tiny hairs differently. The hair converts the sound wave to an electrical signal that goes to your brain, which then processes the sound determining if someone called out for "Jen" or "gin."
Polley and his team developed their audio game to improve how your brain makes use of those unique signals.
The computer game is a little hard to understand outside a lab, Polley said. He wants to keep some of it secret so they can keep testing it. The game essentially uses a first-person player interface like a "Call of Duty" style action game and the listener will hear a variety of meaningless words, clicks and beeps that change based on a person's finger movement.
It's kind of like how someone would play a musical instrument in a band or orchestra, Polley said. With an instrument, you'd move your finger to get the pitch right and to create a certain note, all while listening to your part, hearing how to fits with the other instruments and suppressing some of the din of the musicians around you.
To see if this audio game worked, Polley enrolled 24 older adults who wore hearing aids. They divided the adults into two groups. One group played their specially designed game. The other played a memory challenge game. Each group spent 3.5 hours per week, playing their respective games for 8 weeks.
At the end of the testing period, the adults who played the specially designed game were correctly able to identify 25% more words in spoken sentences or random digits spoken in high noise environments. The adults in the placebo group, the ones playing the memory games, showed no improvement.
The training wasn't a permanent fix. The scientists tested the groups a few weeks after they stopped playing the game, and both groups had hearing abilities that were at the same level as what they had before they started playing. That means if scientists are able to build an audio game for commercial use, people who use it may need to practice regularly.
The audio game has all the hallmarks of what should work, according to Nina Kraus. Kraus is a professor of neurobiology, physiology; otolaryngology in the department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University and is the principal investigator for the Auditory Neuroscience Lab. She didn't work on this study, but her research is cited in it.
Playing an instrument is a great comparison, Kraus said.
"Music is such a jackpot for this kind of training, since it engages your cognition, your sensory motor skills and the reward system of your brain and anything you can do to approximate that is likely to be good for improving your nervous system which never loses the capacity for change," Kraus said.
Kraus said that's often why when tested, even musicians with some hearing loss can distinguish more sounds in conversation than non-musicians with healthy hearing.
There are other audio training games being tested, but studies have shown some are limited. They often train people to hear better during the game, but words they don't train on they don't hear as well. Some pharmaceutical companies are also working on a pill that could repair the synapses that get the electrical signal to your brain.
Polley thinks the study shows that in the future people with hearing loss may get hearing aids to amplify the sound and they'll also get some form of this brain training to improve their experience in everyday life. Polley said the team hopes to refine their game, but he likes the results so far.
"There are reasons for optimism here for sure," Polley said.