You might think an audiologist’s job is to fit you with a hearing aid then send you on your way. You wouldn’t be alone in that assumption, but you’d be wrong! An audiologist is an undercover ‘brain trainer’ who uses a hearing aid to exercise your brain into developing more neuron connections.
The brain is amazing. The brain’s ability to adapt and change is termed neuroplasticity. These physical changes can occur as the result of learning, an injury or disease, growth in child development as well as through maturity. The process of neuroplasticity occurs throughout our lives and has a specific impact on our hearing.
An EEG (electroencephalogram) records brain activity via small sensors attached to the scalp. It picks up the electrical signals produced when brain cells send messages to each other. It is a non-invasive way to assess neuroplasticity in patients with hearing loss. The EEG enables the audiologist to see the brain’s response to sound. As a result, they can now measure the effect of listening effort and social-emotional change on the brain – and the cognitive function of hearing loss.
Repurposing the brain
Repurposing or upcycling are often associated with furniture and clothing. These items can be altered to make them suitable for today’s needs and fashions.
You’ve heard of the saying ‘use it or lose it’, but did you know, as we lose our hearing, the brain may repurpose areas of the brain associated with hearing. However, in the brain, this isn’t always a positive thing. The area of the brain responsible for hearing (the Broca’s area or the frontal cortex) is also needed for balance and memory, which is why hearing loss often affects these functions. The good news is this negative effect can be reversed by treating hearing loss.
It was previously thought that the brain repurposed its pathways associated with hearing to other senses. However, recent studies have proven that this is not the case and, if left untreated, loss can lead to difficulty localising sound and understanding speech in noise.
Repurposing doesn’t just occur with complete deafness. It has been observed in adults with a mild hearing loss (the first stage of a diagnosed hearing loss). The auditory centre of the brain demonstrated reduced response to sound in tests and showed the effort needed to listen moved to a different area of the brain. Therefore, there is an increased reliance on vision in order to hear, which explains why people with a hearing loss often need to be looking at a person they are listening too in order to hear them better.
The brain’s ability to repurpose its pathways can be seen within three months after the onset of hearing loss. The evidence for treating hearing loss quickly and effectively with a professionally programmed hearing aid has never been more evident and clear.