21 March 2014

“We hear with our ears but listen with our brains”. That was the theme of this year’s Research Day, about current research in cognitive hearing sciences.

People with deafness or hearing impairment use cognitive resources in differing amounts to communicate in everyday situations, for example awareness, working memory and long-term memory. The cognitive functions are extra important for listening in difficult and noisy situations.

Jerker Rönnberg, director of Linnaeus Centre HEAD at Linköping University, presented his latest findings together with seven other researchers at Research day on 20 March. The day is a collaboration between HRF Östergötland, an organisation for the hearing impaired, and Disability Studies at Linköping University. Mr Rönnberg’s research includes how hearing impairment is linked to memory and dementia.

Impaired hearing can lead to deterioration in long-term memory. If we do not hear properly, we store less information in long-term memory and we do not retrieve information from long-term memory as often.

If long-term memory is not used, it deteriorates–and diminished long-term memory increases the risk of dementia.

“This shows how incredibly difficult it is to get help with hearing aids as early as possible, partly in order to prevent deterioration in memory and the onset of dementia,” Mr Rönnberg says.

At Linnaeus Centre HEAD, 56 projects on hearing impairment and cognitive ability are currently being run. Topics include if and how the hearing apparatus protects against negative cognitive consequences, how hearing and cognition are affected by ageing, and if deterioration in hearing is only related to hearing or if sight also plays a role.

Professor Thomas Lunner, adjunct professor in cognitive hearing science, is researching cognitive hearing aids. He spoke about the hearing aids of the future, which take the user’s mental condition into account: whether the user is tired or active, whether the user is listening actively or distractedly, and who in the room the user wants to pay attention to.

This is made possible by electrodes in the hearing aid that measure EEG, brain activity, resistance in the skin, heart rhythm and so on.

“Developments have already come a long way in the gaming industry, the military and the mobile telephone industry. Soon it will be possible to operate smart phones with thought power, so we are talking science fiction,” says Professor Lunner.

He showed a film with an experiment where a test subject steers a radio controlled helicopter by thought power, by having electrodes measure activity in the motor cortex.

“If the test subject thinks about clenching his right fist a certain part of the brain is activated, which transfers the signal via a computer to the helicopter which steers it to the right,” explained Professor Lunner.

The idea is that this technology will help the hearing impaired control their hearing aids according to different situations with directional microphones and noise reduction.

At the well-attended Research Day, disability studies postdoc Elaine Ng (picture left) also spoke, as did Björn Lyxell, Professor of Psychology; Stefan Stenfelt, Professor of Technical Audiology; Elina Mäki-Trokko, consultant in Medical Audiology; Mary Rudner, Assistant Professor of Disability Studies; and Cecilia Henricson, licensed psychologist and PhD student in Disability Studies. The moderator of the event was Bengt Westerberg.

Linnaeus Centre HEAD is part of the Swedish Institute for Disability Research (SIDR), a collaboration between Linköping, Örebro and Jönköping Universities. The centre consists of a multidisciplinary research team in the field of hearing impairment and deafness, and a core group of senior researchers, research associates and close collaborative partners.

Researchers - Cognitive hearing science