There has been a lot of research performed over the years linking untreated hearing loss with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia. But that’s not the only connection between your brain and hearing loss. A new study out of the University of Colorado at Boulder determined that as your hearing declines, so does your brain’s ability to process and make sense of sounds.
Anu Sharma, a professor in the University of Colorado’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and lead researcher of this study, looked at the brains of adults between the ages of 37 and 68. None of the participants were receiving treatment for hearing loss at the time, although some admitted their hearing was not as good as it once was.
Participants were connected to electroencephalograms to monitor their brains while they underwent hearing tests and tests using visual stimuli. The researchers found that when the participants were shown images, both their visual and auditory cortexes lit up.
This means that the part of their brain that was responsible for processing sound was now also processing visual stimuli; this process is known as cross-modal recruitment.
Sharma explains, “Because you rely more on this other sense, what happens is the auditory cortex then gets repurposed for visual processing.”
The Pros and Cons of Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity means that your brain is able to reorganize itself based on learning, sensory input and damage. While most often seen in children, this process continues into adulthood.
When your brain no longer needs to allocate as much effort toward processing sound because hearing loss limits the amount of sound information entering your brain, it can reallocate some of that space to your other senses.
For those with untreated hearing loss, their brains may have a harder time discriminating between sounds once they finally do get a hearing aid, as the part of the brain responsible for sound is now smaller.
Sharma and one of her graduate students are conducting new research to see if neuroplasticity can be reversed.
They tested the cognition, executive function, visual and auditory working memory of a group of adults with mild to moderate hearing loss. The participants were then fitted with top-of-the-line hearing aids to be worn for six months. After the treatment period, they were tested again.
“We found that the cross-modal plasticity reversed, which was exciting,” Sharma says. “But even more exciting was that they improved in most of their cognitive scores. The only one they didn’t improve on was auditory working memory, but they improved significantly on … executive function, processing speed, visual working memory, all of that.”
To learn more about the benefit of hearing aids or to schedule an appointment with your audiologist, contact Elk Grove Hearing Care.