For the hearing-impaired, life presents many challenges. Daily routines, work, and family life most often requires a little extra planning and effort. A significant obstacle for those who have a hearing problem is deciphering conversation in a noisy environment. Crowded rooms and busy restaurants create noise challenges even for hearing aid wearers. However, those venues may now be less of a struggle thanks to current research and time spent playing an audiogame designed for the improvement of speech recognition in noisy environments.
The Problem With Noisy Environments
A noisy environment is challenging for anyone, especially the hearing impaired. Background noise forces the ears of the hearing impaired to work differently than those with normal hearing. A loud room causes the inner ear to work extra hard because the neurons are spread too thin. It becomes almost impossible to focus on one conversation because the neurons are being distracted by other information.
24 older adults with an average age of 70 took part in the study. All of the participants presented with mild to severe hearing loss and a seven-year history of hearing aid use. Participants, randomly assigned to one of two training groups spent 3.5 hours per week for eight weeks playing a game. A game designed for improving the ability to follow conversations challenged one team by having them monitor deviations between predicted and actual auditory feedback. The other group, which was the placebo group, played a game testing their aural working memory which was not expected to help with speech recognition.
Design of the Study
This study, designed in a manner to prevent researchers and participants from knowing which group trained for the therapeutic benefit and who trained with a placebo game, showed similar expectations from both teams. All participants felt that their speech understanding would improve as a result of playing the game.
Participants in both groups improved in their respective auditory tasks. However, the group playing the working memory game showed no improvement in their ability to decipher words or any task requiring working memory. The other team correctly identified 25 percent more words in spoken sentences presented to them with high levels of background noise. These gains show marked improvement in participants ability to make sense of what they hear in noisy environments. The training provides roughly three times more benefit than hearing aids alone.
The Future of Auditory Software
Deciphering speech in a noisy atmosphere is a whole brain activity and not controlled by the ear alone. The researchers believe that perceptual learning on a computerized audiogame can transfer to the communication challenges that the hearing impaired must deal with in the real world. They feel that hearing difficulty is manageable through a combination of auditory software and the latest in-ear listening devices. By combining the conventional assistive devices such as hearing aids and cochlear implants with audiogames, the hearing impaired may experience improved ability in speech recognition and ultimately a reconnection to the auditory world.