International award for hearing loss 'brain training' research paper

Specialist conducting an ear examination
06 Mar 2015 00:01:00.000
A Nottingham study that demonstrated how training the brain could be used to improve listening and cognition in people with hearing loss is to receive international recognition.

An academic paper* on the research conducted by experts at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit (BRU) has been chosen as the Editors’ Award 2014 by Ear and Hearing, the number one ranked international peer-reviewed hearing science journal.

Researchers from the BRU — a partnership between academics at The University of Nottingham and theMedical Research Council Institute of Hearing Research (MRC IHR) and clinicians from Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust— will be in the US to receive the award on March 6.

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Dr Melanie Ferguson, Consultant Clinical Scientist (audiology) and Hon associate professor led the research. She said: “Our overall aim in carrying out research studies like this is to help people with hearing loss overcome their hearing difficulties, and make better use of their hearing in their everyday life. Our study showed some novel results, which suggest that training the auditory system seems to also train the brain. It’s a bit like going to the gym, except it is the auditory system — which includes the brain — that is being exercised.

“The research team is absolutely delighted to win this international award that recognises our important contribution to hearing research. It is even more rewarding because the research takes us a step closer to providing a better understanding of how we can help people with hearing loss. The consequences of hearing loss are often not understood and this can lead many people to withdraw from family, social and work life.”

Social isolation

One in six of the UK population has a significant hearing loss – 10 million people. Hearing loss is a long-term condition that cause difficulties communicating with others leading to social isolation and withdrawal, depression and reduced quality of life.

For the Nottingham study, people with hearing loss aged 50-74 years old were asked to play computerised auditory training games which involved actively listening to short sections of words such as ‘ah-ah-eh’ and identifying which was the odd one out. They did this for 15 minutes a day over four weeks. The training was completed at home on laptops loaned by the researchers.

Most people completed all the training requested even though almost a third had never used a computer before.

After four weeks of training, people where better able to identify the differences between the sounds they heard. But what was interesting was that people also showed improvements on other measures such as cognitive tests of divided attention and working memory, which are important when listening to people speaking.

Study participants said they were able to listen better after training, particularly in challenging listening situations such as group conversations, which is a problem for many people with hearing loss. Furthermore, these benefits in cognition and listening remained four weeks later. 

Robust evidence

Dr Helen Henshaw, senior research fellow, said: “Although we hear with our ears, listening requires both our ears and our brains. Past research to assess training interventions for people with hearing loss has typically lacked scientific rigour. Our high-quality approach enabled us to systematically assess the benefits of auditory training for people with hearing loss and provide robust evidence for benefits to communication and cognition.

“Participants in this study really enjoyed the training and they were motivated to beat their previous scores on the training games each day. The training made them aware that they had to actively listen and focus in conversations.”

Each year the editorial board members for Ear and Hearing select an article to be recognised for its outstanding contribution to the literature on hearing and balance. The overarching goal of the journal is to publish articles that not only advance understanding of hearing and balance but also translate that knowledge into future clinical practice.

Dr Melanie Ferguson and Dr Helen Henshaw will be travelling to the US to receive the award at the 2015 American Auditory Society (AAS) meeting being held in Arizona on March 6, along with their collaborator on the paper Professor Dave Moore, Director of the Communication Sciences Research Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and former Director of MRC IHR in Nottingham.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers, in the top 10 for student experience according to the Times Higher Education and winner of ‘Research Project of the Year’ at the THE Awards 2014. It is ranked in the world’s top one per cent of universities by the QS World University Rankings, and 8th in the UK by research power according to REF 2014.

The University of Nottingham in Malaysia (UNMC) is holding events throughout 2015 to celebrate 15 years as a pioneer of transnational education. Based in Semenyih, UMNC was established as the UK's first overseas campus in Malaysia and one of the first world-wide.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

* Benefits of Phoneme Discrimination Training in a Randomized Controlled Trial of 50–70-year-olds With Mild Hearing Loss, Ear and Hear 35, e110-e121.

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Melanie Ferguson by email at; Dr Helen Henshaw by email at; National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Nottingham Hearing Biomedical Research Unit (BRU) on +44 (0)115 823 2600 .

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

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