Audio Game May Help People with Hearing Loss

The game trains players to identify soft sounds in loud environments.

Thanks to a recent innovation from researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, new therapeutic tools may be available for the 48 million Americans suffering from hearing loss. According to findings published in a June issue of PNAS, researchers have programmed an audio game that trains players to identify soft sounds in loud environments.

The game, which utilizes “sensory foraging behavior,” was tested on both mice and humans with normal hearing. Human subjects trained with the game for 30 minutes each day over the course of a month. According to the study’s abstract:

All sensory systems face the fundamental challenge of encoding weak signals in noisy backgrounds. Although discrimination abilities can improve with practice, these benefits rarely generalize to untrained stimulus dimensions. Both species learned to modulate their angular search vectors and target approach velocities based on real-time changes in the level of a weak tone embedded in broadband noise.

In humans, mastery of this tone in noise task generalized to an improved ability to comprehend spoken sentences in speech babble noise. Neural plasticity in the auditory cortex of trained mice supported improved decoding of low-intensity sounds at the training frequency and an enhanced resistance to interference from background masking noise. These findings highlight the potential to improve the neural and perceptual salience of degraded sensory stimuli through immersive computerized games.

Daniel Polley, the study’s lead author, said in a report that researchers were surprised by the results they observed in human subjects. He said that the findings demonstrate “the utility of brain-training exercises that are inspired by careful neuroscience research.”

“When combined with conventional assistive devices such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, audio games of the type we describe here may be able to provide the hearing impaired with an improved ability to reconnect to the auditory world,” Polley said.