A research study published in Science Communications, a peer-reviewed journal, has discovered a previously undiscovered mechanism in the ear for processing speech. The research, conducted by researchers from Oticon and Interacoustics on an international team, revealed another function in the inner ear that detects the acoustic details in speech before it is converted into information for the brain, Oticon announced.
To understand speech, vital acoustic details enable us to distinguish words. Only a small amount of this detail is needed for speech recognition but to date, the mechanism used by the auditory system to extract the detail was not known. The new discovery is an important addition to understanding how the inner ear and our sense of hearing work. It may allow professionals to more precisely individualize hearing loss diagnosis and could spearhead the development of better personalized hearing aids to support the brain.
The paper, “A mechanoelectrical mechanism for detection of sound envelopes in the hearing organ,” is the result of a study spanning nine years. The research was initiated in 2009 by three principal researchers, including Thomas Lunner, PhD, professor and research area manager, cognitive hearing science, Eriksholm, part of Oticon. James Harte, PhD, director of the Interacoustics research unit—part of William Demant—became involved in the study, which concluded as a collaboration among no fewer than 13 physicists and inner ear researchers from five countries.
“We are now able to better understand a part of the hearing system that was not known before,” said Lunner. “Sound travels through the ear as mechanical waves, which is then translated into electrical pulses for the brain by the outer and inner hair cells. To date, it has only been possible to diagnose the health of outer hair cells, for example, in newborn screening. This research could make the first methods to diagnose the health of inner hair cells possible, which has the potential to improve individualized hearing aid processing to better support brain functions, ultimately reducing the effort placed on the brain to understand sound.”
The new research may pave the way for exciting, original tools for diagnosis of hearing loss.
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Original Paper: Nuttall AL, Ricci AJ, Burwood G, et al. A mechanoelectrical mechanism for detection of sound envelopes in the hearing organ. Nature Communications. 2018;9:4175.
Source: Oticon, Nature Communications