Tag Archive: Columbia University

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.

New hearing aid promises better results

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Researchers at Columbia University have developed a new hearing aid that claims to tune out distracting voices by reading the wearer’s brain waves. People need a difference between the ambient sound level and the level of speech, called the speech-to-noise or signal-to-noise ratio, both abbreviated SNR,  to be able to understand speech. People with normal hearing need a 3 dB SNR, but those with hearing loss need a 7 dB SNR or even a 15 dB SNR to be able to understand speech.

Older analog hearing aids amplified all sounds, so they didn’t help users understand speech in a noisy environment, because all sounds were amplified. But newer digital hearing aids, with directional and tunable features, claim to have solved this problem.

I haven’t seen studies of this in peer-reviewed journals, only claims from the manufacturers. Hearing aid users have told me the costly digital hearing aids are better, but still nowhere near as good as normal hearing.

If the new hearing aids discussed in the report linked above become available commercially, they are likely to cost even more than the latest digital hearing aids, which can cost up to $8,000 for a pair.

Here’s a thought: Instead of requiring people with hearing loss to drop $8,000 for the privilege of understanding speech in public spaces, why not make restaurants and stores quieter? That would make everyone more comfortable in the space, and would help everyone understand speech.

And the simplest way of making a restaurant or store costs nothing: turn down the volume of the amplified background music!

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.

Aircraft noise kills

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report about a Columbia University study estimates how many New York City residents under the flight paths near La Guardia Airport will suffer adverse health outcomes, including shorter lives.

Noise isn’t just a nuisance. Transportation noise has been extensively studied in Europe. There can be no rational doubt about its adverse health effects, as recently summarized by Munzel et al.

This problem is recognized by European authorities, who have mandated that airports and airlines take steps to minimize noise exposure for those living near airports and under flight paths.

The FAA and CDC haven’t recognized the problem on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, but if enough people speak up and demand that their elected representatives act, things can change.

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.