A new study by Anu Sharma, Ph. D, at the University of Colorado indicates that any kind of untreated hearing loss is likely to result in degradation of brain function. Her findings show that when the temporal lobe, the area of the brain that is normally engaged in sound processing, is not receiving sufficient sound input (as a result of deafness or hearing loss), other brain processes reclaim that area. As Dr. Sharma, who was recently interviewed here, said: “We noticed that when a person is deaf, the areas of the brain in which sounds are normally processed change…. other areas of the brain recruit the available areas … for their own purposes. This is called cross-modal plasticity.”
Adults with early-stage age-related hearing loss (right) show decreased activation of the hearing portion of the brain compared with normal hearing age-matched adults (left). - See more at: http://www.hearingreview.com/2015/05/researchers-discover-brain-reorganizes-hearing-loss/#sthash.HMNeuZir.dpuf
Further, she found that “Other modalities, such as vision and somatosensory, recruit auditory areas.” So is this another case of use it or lose it? “Yes” she said. “If the ears cannot deliver sound to the brain, the area of the brain which normally processes sound gets assigned to another function, as the brain is highly adaptable, or ‘plastic.’”
OK, but what about the rest of us, who are just starting to have some hearing loss? “Glad you asked!” She countered: “Most of the adults we examined had normal hearing to 2000 Hz and then had a mild–moderate sloping sensorineural hearing loss after that, consistent with presbycusis (age-related hearing loss). However, we found that even in these adults, these same types of brain cross-modal changes had occurred, secondary to their mild hearing loss.”
Dr. Sharma was asked about the significance of this brain reorganization. She responded: “It appears that for people with hearing loss, less of the auditory cortex is stimulated, and so the areas not stimulated by sound, they may be re-assigned … and when sounds come in, more listening effort is required, which activates the frontal and pre-frontal areas to help with sound processing.”
Adults with mild age-related hearing loss (right) show brain reorganization in hearing portions of brain, which are recruited for processing visual patterns. This is not seen in age-matched adults with normal hearing (left). - See more at: http://www.hearingreview.com/2015/05/researchers-discover-brain-reorganizes-hearing-loss/#sthash.HMNeuZir.dpuf
So it would seem that the sooner we take action on hearing loss, the better off we are. Indications that this may be true also come from yet another line of research, by another researcher, Dr. Amyn Amlani, at the University of North Texas. His work with Alzheimer’s patients, though as yet unpublished, suggests that hearing aids might improve auditory plasticity and, inherently, functional behavior in individuals with diagnosed moderate Alzheimer’s Disease and mild-to-moderate hearing loss. It now seems imperative to answer the following questions: What neural pathway(s) does the brain reorganize? Can hearing aids help reverse or restore auditory processing to the auditory cortex?”
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