Tag Archive: research

Lockdown was a boon for science

Photo credit: Kwh1050 licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, and Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition

As I have written before on Silencity, the COVID-19 lockdown has given city dwellers around the world the opportunity to hear a landscape with less road traffic, fewer overhead jets, and a slowdown in constructions sounds. Yes, one sound was heard more frequently – birdsong. But on June 22, New York City is entering Phase 2 and the “older, less welcoming sounds” could be returning.

Interestingly, the quieter pandemic environment has given the Quiet Project in the UK the opportunity to map out the lower decibel levels that have occurred during the lockdown, writes Philip Ball of The Guardian. In addition to actual sound recordings, the Quiet Project has asked the public to reflect on how the changed soundscape has affected them. According to Lindsay McIntyre, the director of the company involved in this project, “[e]veryone I speak to has got an opinion on how the changes in noise makes them feel.” For example, as I have noted in earlier writings, some people actually miss the more traditional urban sounds, but what they really missed was what their lives were before the pandemic.

The researchers involved in the Quiet Project hope to use their data in ways that may result, for example, in having planners factor in more “tranquil areas” in cities as we move forward. Seismologists are especially interested in how the pandemic altered human activities. With less human activity, and the accompanying noises they are responsible for, seismologists can detect small earthquakes and this information can tell more about the “state of stress and movement in the crust.” Oceanographers, concerned about the impact of low-frequency noise from ship engines on the communications of marine life, found the change in ocean sounds during the pandemic provided the opportunity to study ship factors that harm marine animals. This finding could “help plan ocean transportation so it is less disruptive to marine life.”

With the pandemic resulting in less noise, scientists were given the opportunity to collect the kind of data that may help them find ways to keep our planet quieter in the near future for all its inhabitants. Out of adversity, can come creativity!

Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a researcher, writer, and consultant on the adverse effects of noise on mental and physical health. She is co-author of “Why Noise Matters,” author of “Listen to the Raindrops” (children’s book illustrated by Steven Parton), and has written extensively about noise in books, encyclopedias, academic journals, and the popular press.  In addition, she is a Professor Emerita of the City University of New York and Board member of GrowNYC.

Lessons from “The Great Silence?” Researchers are listening.

Photo credit: Angy DS licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

I’ve been eagerly watching for researchers to probe the effects of this unique, unprecedented period of global silence. Recently, Nick Smith, writing for Engineering And Technology, has reported on academic projects at the Max Planck Institute in Gemany, the British Geological Survey in the UK, New York University in the U.S., and in several other places around the world where researchers are digging into the effects of “anthropogenic noise,” i.e., human-generated industrial noise.

It appears that most of the effort is focused on birds—which would also imply impacts on insects and plants too—but that could just be because Smith was interested in that subject.

The best news is that researchers are actively working on the subject, and therefore we may learn from this moment. As Smith notes, “[a]ssessing the impact that human-generated or anthropogenic noise has on the natural world is fast becoming a growth area in academia.”

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

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.

Newly identified gene plays critical role in noise-induced hearing loss

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report about research done at the University of California-San Francisco describes identification of a new gene and its effects on proteins in the cochlea. The cochlea is the part of the ear where sound waves are transformed into electrical impulses which are transmitted to the brain and perceived as sound. The article notes that insights about the newly identified gene and the proteins it codes for may eventually lead to drugs to prevent hearing loss after noise exposure.

I have a much more practical suggestion that those concerned about their hearing can use today. Until that drug is available on the market–which will be years to decades to perhaps never, and who knows at what price–avoid noise-induced hearing loss by avoiding loud noise exposure. It’s simple, easy, and inexpensive. And I speak from experience–it’s what I do. I avoid loud noise, e.g., rock concerts, and if I can’t avoid loud noise, when flying in an airplane or using a power tool, for example, I wear noise-canceling headphones or insert earplugs.

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.

Finally, restaurateurs think about how noise affects taste

Photo credit: G.M. Briggs

Betsy Andrews, SevenFiftyDaily, reports on “[n]ew research [that] is causing restaurant and bar owners to rethink noise control in their venues.” Andrews writes about Jim Meehan, a forward thinking bar owner, who “wanted a place where he could hear.” So Meehan hired Scott McNiece, the founder of the Chicago-based company Uncanned Music, who designs acoustics for restaurants.

The result was a space where “[t]he muted sound helps patrons relax and focus, not only on their companions but on Meehan’s cocktails.”  Meehan is pleased as is his business partner, Kevin Heisner, who believes noise “dings not just moods but palates.”  And Andrews dives into the world of the science of dining, introducing us to the researchers who are discovering that noise does affect taste.

But the most exciting bit of news from the piece comes at the end, when Andrews speaks to Dallas architect Rick Carrell, whose firm has designed spaces for large chain clients like Panera Bread and Starbucks. Carrell tells Andrews that, “[c]lients are very concerned with noise now. They don’t see it as a motivator like they did 10 years ago.”

Thank goodness.  It’s about time.

Click the link above to read the entire article.

How your brain singles out one sound among many

Shilo Rea, Carnegie-Mellon, writes that researchers “have developed a new way to find out how the brain singles out specific sounds in distracting settings.” Why is this significant? Because, writes Rea, “[t]he study lays crucial groundwork to track deficits in auditory attention due to aging, disease, or brain trauma and to create clinical interventions, like behavioral training, to potentially correct or prevent hearing issues.”

This research is important because deficits in auditory attention are associated with social isolation, depression, cognitive dysfunction and lower work force participation. According to Frederic Dick, professor of auditory cognitive neuroscience at Birkbeck College and University College London, once neuroscientists “start to understand how subtle differences in the brain’s functional and structural architecture might make some regions more ‘fertile ground’ for learning new information.”

Click the link to read more about the fascinating study.

Scientists discover that eardrums move in sync with eyes

By Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Aylin Woodward, New Scientist, reports on new research that shows that our eardrums appear to move to shift our hearing in the same direction that our eyes are looking. Jennifer Groh, the lead researcher, believes “that before actual eye movement occurs, the brain sends a signal to the ear to say ‘I have commanded the eyes to move 12 degrees to the right’.” Why? She opines that “[t]he eardrum movements that follow the change in focus may prepare our ears to hear sounds from a particular direction,” noting that one reason why the eyes and ears move together may be to help “the brain make sense of what we see and hear.”

My guess is that for our primate ancestors, and then for primitive humans, there was a survival advantage to hearing sound from something that had been seen. Friend or foe? Food or predator? It will be interesting to see where this research leads, particularly as Woodward writes that the study might help develop better hearing aids, “which must locate where sounds are coming from to work well.”

Research is always good. That’s how we learn about how the world works. But we don’t need any more research to know that noise is a health and public health hazard, and that we need to press our elected officials to make the world quieter now.

Because no matter how good the technology becomes, preserved normal hearing is far better than any hearing aid. And far cheaper, too.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and 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.

A lowly fly may offer hope to hearing loss sufferers

Photo credit: Jpaur licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

And Michelle Pucci, TVO, tells us how in her article, “How a tiny fly on a treadmill could lead to better hearing aids.” Pucci introduces us to the research team studying the ormia ochracea, a small fly that is drawn to “crickets’ singing, but no one quite knows how it manages to pick out that sound amid the cacophony of the natural world and locate it so precisely.” Why is this important?  Because if researchers can determine how the fly “pinpoints individual sounds in a noisy setting,” writes Pucci, “it could help solve the so-called cocktail party problem — the one that makes it tough for your grandmother to hear what you’re saying at family functions (and causes her to shout at you), because her hearing aid picks up too much background noise.”

Andrew Mason, a biologist at the University of Toronto explains that the fly’s “eardrums work like a scale, and incoming noises tip the balance.” Unlike humans, the fly’s “eardrums are connected — which Mason says could explain why the fly tries to interpret the different levels of sound it receives in both ears.”  Humans, on the other hand, can “locate and isolate the sounds they want to listen to, even in noisy environments, if the sources are far enough away from one another.”

The problem hearing aid wearers experience is that “it’s impossible to focus on a single conversation in a noisy room…because hearing aids trick the ear into thinking all those sounds are the same distance away.” That is, the hearing aid amplifies everything, making the task of concentrating on one conversation among many impossible. As researchers learn more about the ormia ochracea’s excellent sound-location abilities, engineers have used that knowledge.  Today, mics in some hearing aid design “mimic the fly’s ear structure,” and “research groups around the world are working on hearing aids that would allow the wearer to home in on different frequencies.”

So why do ormia ochracea search for crickets?  The answer is pretty grim:

[T]he female deposits its spawn inside the crickets, who sing when looking for a mate. Black-striped larvae then hatch inside the doomed cricket and scrape at its innards for 10 days…before “bursting out of the side like in Alien.”

How research, technology, and finance are fueling the new world of hearables

Copyright 2016 www.hearable.world

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

“For the last 40 years, there’s been very little movement, if any at all on [hearing loss]… and there [are] fundamental regulatory forces in place here that are subject to inertia. …. Now, just literally within the last year, …we’ve seen more movement on this issue than essentially in the last 50 years of U.S. history.”

–Frank Lin, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor, Otolaryngology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (July 2016)

In the U.S. we grew accustomed to noise and noise-induced hearing loss being ignored. Nothing much happened for three and a half decades after 1981 when, for political reasons, noise and its effects became verboten—serious people wouldn’t talk about it and researchers couldn’t find money to explore it. But lately, what venture capitalists call a “convergence” has occurred—a confluence of research, technology development, and novel sources of financial support (i.e., crowdfunding). And this convergence is creating a surge of interest in this long-ignored subject.

What is going on? Why are some of us so excited about this? Where are we headed? How does this help (or hurt) people who are concerned with the need to control noise, peoples’ exposure to noise, and people who suffer from hearing disorders like tinnitus, hyperacusis, and misophonia? If you follow the writing of The Quiet Coalition’s chairman, Daniel Fink, MD, you may recall that he first wrote about this subject last May. In short, personal sound amplification products (PSAPs) are a positive, exciting step in the right direction. But they will not and cannot solve the larger problem of noise and noise-induced hearing loss in America.

First: What’s going on?

Did it start with research? In 2009, two researchers at Harvard’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Charles Liberman, PhD, and Sharon Kujawa, PhD, published a paper revealing that “synaptopathy”, i.e., permanent nerve damage to the nerves that connect the ears to the brain, actually happened at lower noise levels than previously assumed and in the neurological circuits that can’t be seen in an audiological exam (audiologists can only see the pinna, the external auditory canal and the tympanic membrane—after that all has been a big mystery).

As a result, something called “hidden hearing loss” suddenly caught the attention of the policy makers who funded the research. Abruptly, the idea that noise caused only “temporary” damage, i.e., that the ear could recover from what has for decades been called a “Temporary Threshold Shift,” appeared to be really wrong. Hearing damage to nerves is always permanent and, at least until cures are found, irreparable. This caused a shift toward neuroscience research and toward the search for potential cures in partnership with the drug industry.

Did it start with technology innovators? Sony’s phenomenally successful Walkman (launched in 1977, forty years ago) started it, but then Apple’s iPod caused an explosion in the use of “earbuds” for “personal listening.” These wired earbuds were incredibly popular but always troublesome to wear because of the wires, so R&D types began trying to figure out how to get rid of the wires. Then “wireless” arrived. Called “Bluetooth,” it was developed in Sweden (the name “Bluetooth” is a tribute to the ancient King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark who unified parts of Scandinavia). But even wireless earbuds were essentially “dumb” speakers. Eventually, other restless R&D types began exploring what else, with increasingly miniaturized circuit designs, those wireless earbuds could do for you if you thought about the ear as a “portal” for transmitting information to the brain. From that work was born the idea of the PSAP.

But how did an idea turn into a blossoming industry called “wearables” or “hearables” in which at least seventeen companies are now scrambling for your attention? The answer? Money.

Did it start with the idea of “crowdsourcing” money to develop next-generation, smart “earbuds”? Look closely at the chart above and you’ll see that many pioneering PSAP companies currently vying for your attention are financed by “crowdsourcing” campaigns (e.g., Kickstarter and others). Another funding approach now available to companies in this emerging sector is the new SEC-approved “equity crowdsourcing” venture-finance companies, which have only been able to operate since late 2016 in the USA (earlier elsewhere). In other words, now there are whole new ways to start and fund a tech company that do not rely on traditional venture capitalists—those people who traditionally funded lots of other tech companies, but who have had, until now, little interest in hearing technologies because the hearing technology market has been stuck in a rut for three and a half decades.

In truth, all three of these phenomena—research, technology innovation, and capital–occurred independently. But now they have converged and are beginning to affect—and disrupt—existing markets, such as the market for hearing aids.  Hearing aids are over-priced, limited production devices generally aimed at older people and manufactured by a group of six companies (“the cartel” or “The Big Six”) who dominate the industry and make 98% of the world’s hearing aids—in other words, this is a market ripe for disruption.

Now add a fourth catalyst: Regulatory change. Eleven months ago (June 2016), the National Academy of Medicine published a significant report about the emerging, disruptive technology of PSAPs and attempted to warn audiologists, hearing aid manufacturers, and others who have been comfortably ensconced in this stable, profitable but uninteresting market that things are about to change. Then, a few months later two U.S. Senators introduced a bi-partisan bill intended to accelerate transformation of this market. It’s called “The Over-The-Counter Hearing Aid Act,” and it was introduced by Senators Warren (D-MA) and Grassley (R-IA). This act specifically seeks to streamline the market for “hearables”/PSAPs by exempting them from FDA regulation and enabling them to be sold direct to consumers, i.e., “over the counter,” without medical intervention.

But wait, what does this story have to do with our interest in noise control, in ending harmful exposure to noise, in your and your family’s hearing health? Do these new PSAP devices provide some relief for people who already suffer from noise-induced hearing loss? Can they prevent further damage from exposure?

Answer: A big maybe.

Keep in mind that the first word in PSAP is “personal”—these devices only address your noise problem, they don’t solve the noise problem for anyone else. If you travel to work on a noisy subway system, it’s possible some of these PSAP devices may provide you with some relief in the form of an active noise cancellation feature. If you can’t understand conversation in a noisy restaurant, some of the PSAP devices may be able to help you screen out background cacophony and focus on the person who’s speaking to you. In short, PSAPs include a wide array of features that might interest you. They are marketed as wireless earbuds that allow you to optimize “the way you hear the world,” and not as hearing aids, because they cannot be advertised as “hearing aids”—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits that. Only a “hearing aid” from one of “The Big Six” can be sold as a “hearing aid”—and only those six companies worldwide make devices that are labeled that way.

So “Caveat Emptor” (buyer beware) if you’re interested in trying one of the new PSAPs! This is exciting stuff and they cost less than 1/10th the price of conventional hearing aids. Furthermore, at least two of these companies, Doppler Labs (HERE One) and Nuheara (IQbuds), already have products on the market, so you can actually try out a pair of wireless earbuds and see for yourself.

But do they address the larger social problem that noise has gotten out of hand in America? That we’re all besieged, victimized, permanently injured by too much noise? To this, the answer is definitely “no.” You and a few others might get some relief, but PSAPs are not a solution to the noise problem in America.

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founder of the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). Mr. Sykes spent several decades in private equity, venture finance, and technology development and has a keen interest in how convergence and disruption affect traditional industries.

Originally posted at The Quiet Coalition.

Noise pollution puts songbirds in danger,

making them more vulnerable to predators. Joanna Lawrence, Natural Science News, reports that researchers have found that “noise pollution prevents songbirds from hearing and responding to alarm calls.”  The researchers discovered that anthropogenic noise, “a form of noise pollution caused by human activities,” makes it difficult for the songbirds to hear alarms, leaving them “vulnerable to predation” (i.e., being eaten by other animals).   The research showed that the birds’ failure to hear and respond to alarms caused them “to continue feeding in dangerous situations.”  More research is needed, adds Lawrence, to “fully understand the ecological impacts of anthropogenic noise.”