Medical and scientific news

Speech discrimination begins in the womb

Photo credit: lunar caustic licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

A recent report looks at new research demonstrating that speech discrimination begins in the womb.

That’s not surprising. Gulls don’t speak, but they communicate danger by their cries, and the New York Times reported that the ability to recognize danger cries also begins in the egg!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Animal study may have implications on human hearing issues

Photo credit: Батяшев Александр licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalitionhttps://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

I’ve only read the press release and the abstract for this paper in JNeurosci but the findings are interesting. In chinchillas–a common animal model for hearing research–scientists at the University of Rochester and Purdue University found that mild noise-induced hearing loss also caused changes in nerve processing of auditory signals.

This may have implications for humans in terms of the very common “speech in noise” problem, in which people with normal audiograms complain that they can’t understand a conversation if the ambient noise level is moderate to high.

But to me, the most important implication of this study is that it emphasizes how important it is to protect our ears.

The only evidence-based noise exposure level to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 decibels a day and even that low level of noise exposure may be too high.

According to the World Health Organization, only one hour at 85 A-weighted decibels is enough to cause hearing loss.

The CDC states that noise-Induced hearing loss is entirely preventable.  Avoid exposure to loud noise, or wear hearing protection if one can’t.

Because if something sounds too loud, it IS too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Columbia project on hearing loss focuses on the brain

Photo Credit: This U.S. Army graphic is in the public domain

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The hearing loss space is attracting investment again after nearly four decades of being starved for funding. New York City’s Columbia University is working on a project that shows us what investors are looking into: the hidden parts of hearing that involve brain circuitry.

The Columbia project, unlike some of the others I’ve discussed before, won’t deliver anything practical for a very long time, but it’s still pretty interesting. Until recently hearing researchers focused on the ear and assumed that was the important part. But it turns out that the wiring between the ear and brain, specifically the regions of the brain involved in hearing, is where the action is now. In part, that’s because there’s been such a surge of federal and private money pouring into brain research over the past decade.

The Columbia research team is looking at how they might train hearing aids to distinguish the voices of specific people—the people you want to hear and nobody else. Right now, that would involve implanting electrodes into your brain–that’s what happens if you get a cochlear implant–but they’re hoping to be able to do this eventually with external devices.

What the researchers are addressing is what’s known as the Lombard Effect, discovered a century ago by the French physician Etienne Lombard, and also known as the “cocktail party effect.” It’s one of the first signs of hearing loss and consists of an inability to understand “speech-in-noise.” Example: you’re in a noisy space like a club or a party, and you’re trying to understand what your companion is saying but you’re unable to do so because of the background noise. Sound familiar? If so, you–like nearly 50 million Americans–have hearing loss.

No, there’s nothing you can do about it. Not yet. So we recommend you follow this Columbia project to see what happens next.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Music festival noise stresses out research fish

Photo credit: Kathy licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report in the Miami Herald discusses how noise from the Ultra Music Festival “stressed out” fish kept at the University of Miami for research purposes. Toadfish, a common species in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, were more stressed than if they had heard the clicking sounds made by dolphins, which are a major predator for toadfish.

“So what we’re talking about here and what our data show presently is that Ultra was causing a short-term acute stress on our fish,” said Danielle McDonald, a University of Miami associate professor. “We don’t know and we cannot conclude whether this stress would have persisted over time,” she added.

I’m pretty sure the stress would have persisted.  Animals evolved in quiet, with sound detection being an important method of finding food for predator species, or avoiding being eaten for prey species.

In humans, noise exposure causes involuntary physiological stress responses, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and vascular inflammation

The one question I haven’t seen answered is whether voluntary noise exposure causes the same physiological stress responses as involuntary noise exposure. The fish obviously didn’t want to attend the rock concert, but the lab facility in which they lived was close enough to the music festival that they had to hear the music. Did the same changes occur in those who paid their hard-earned money to attend the festival?

If anyone has seen a research study answering this question, please let us know.

Thanks to Sherilyn Adler, PhD, at the Ear Peace Foundation in Miami, Florida for bring this article to our attention.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Another drug trial to prevent noise-induced hearing loss

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This press release from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis says that the medical school is receiving a $10 million grant from the Army to test whether an epilepsy drug can prevent noise-induced hearing loss.

The study population includes patients undergoing surgical procedures requiring use of noisy drills and police officers.

While I’m glad that people who can’t avoid loud noise may have an option that will offer them some level of protection, for most of us it’s a whole lot easier to prevent noise-induced hearing loss by just avoiding exposure to loud noise.

Remember, if it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

New technology may help the hard of hearing

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

New technology may help the hard of hearing by providing automatic captioning of live conversations on smart phones. This article by Richard Nieva, CNET, describes the technology, which is limited to Android phones, but I’m sure that Apple will soon follow with similar technology for iPhones. After all, the potential market is 50 million adults with hearing loss in the U.S., and over 400 million worldwide.

And all data suggest that, for a number of reasons, this is unfortunately a growth market.

But I can guarantee that preserved natural hearing is far better than any technological solution to hearing loss, be it hearing aids, personal sound amplification products, or the new Google app.

Noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable. Simply avoid loud noise and you won’t lose your hearing.

Your ears are like your eyes or your knees–you only have two of them! Protect them and they will last you a lifetime.

And remember: If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

A new insight into hearing

This image from “Comparative Anatomy” (1936) has no known copyright restrictions.

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Stephen Mraz, MachineDesign, writes about a new findings by MIT researchers that is providing insight into hearing, specifically how a very thin layer in the cochlea helps humans pick out one voice among many in a crowd. Mraz notes that the new findings could lead to better hearing aids.

I’m not sure I understand the research, and it probably has to be confirmed by other studies, but the inability to understand speech in a noisy environment is a problem for many older adults. One thing I do know for sure, though, is that loud noise damages the auditory system.

So while I am happy to hear that research is continuing to uncover how human hearing works and how noise damages it, I wish every article and report on the latest research would add a statement telling readers that noise-induced hearing loss is 100% preventable.

And remember: If it sounds too loud, it IS too loud!

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Swedish researchers discover 3 types of nerve fibers in the ear

This image from Gray’s Anatomy is in the public domain.

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report in Science Alert describes how researchers in Sweden figured out that there are three types of Type I nerve fibers in the ear. They did this using sophisticated DNA analysis techniques.

I often say that all research in a broad range of fields adds to our knowledge about noise and hearing and health, but quickly add that no new research, and no more research, is needed to know that noise causes hearing loss and non-auditory health effects including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and death.

The scientific evidence is strong enough that there can be no rational doubt about this. And anyone who still has doubts about this can join the folks at the Heartland Institute who still don’t think the scientific evidence about cigarette smoking causing lung cancer is strong enough to be conclusive. Or the Flat Earth Society.

For the rest of us, guided by science, let’s aim to protect our ears and preserve our hearing.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Just in time for New Year’s Eve

The Food and Drug Administration approves a drug that calms dogs afraid of fireworks and other loud noises. This is good news for pet owners who have tried–and failed–to deal with anxious pups.

Better news, of course, would be if every local government took the lead of Collecchio, Italy and mandated the use of quiet fireworks, which provide the display people love without the loud noise that torments man’s best friend. Gotta be cheaper than getting on the waiting list for Ford’s (yes the car company) kennel with noise-canceling technology.

Hearing loss associated with depression

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I’m not sure this new report on the association between hearing loss and depression in older Hispanic people in JAMA Otolaryngology adds much to our knowledge of how hearing loss affects people. It has been known for some years that hearing loss is associated with depression in older people. The report extends the research to Hispanic people in several large cities, but as best as I can tell, that’s the only new information. The authors claim that this study’s importance is that it measured hearing loss rather than relying on reports of hearing difficulties, but some earlier studies did that, too.

In older people it’s hard to tell if the hearing loss was caused by noise or not, because over time changes indicating hearing loss from noise lose specificity as hearing loss becomes worse. But my analysis of the literature suggests that what is commonly called age-related hearing loss, as in the JAMA Otolaryngology article, is really noise-induced hearing loss, which is entirely preventable.

Now that the connection between hearing loss and depression is clear, doesn’t it make sense for government and the medical community to commit resources to educate the public about the dangers of noise-induced hearing loss? A host of health concerns will diminish or disappear if we focus on stopping noise-induced hearing loss.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.