Our brains are incredible machines. There is no arguing that as much as we have learned about them over the years, our understanding is still very limited. It’s like space or ocean exploration. We only know a small percentage of what’s really in the brain and how it operates. This includes how it manages the complex process of hearing and how it changes with hearing loss.
Some of the latest findings show just how advanced the human brain can be when it comes to adapting to hearing loss.
The brain and hearing
When we think of hearing, we often think only of our ears. They capture the sound and we hear it, right? While we do capture sound with our ears, that sound is nothing but waves until the auditory nerve and the brain get involved. It is the brain that interprets the soundwaves so that we hear a car engine revving, a baby cooing or a friend’s conversation instead of just vibrations.
In recent years, experts have dug into this complex system, focusing in on exactly what happens to the brain when there is a hearing impairment. The findings demonstrate just what ever-changing and growing structures our brains can be.
Whether it’s a hearing loss at birth, sudden hearing loss as an adult or a gradual age-related hearing loss, our research shows that our brains adapt. They rewire themselves to help us continue to communicate.
In one recent study, researchers from Oregon State University (OSU) took a closer look at genetics behind profound congenital hearing loss. They focused on the otoferlin protein known to encode sounds as part of the hair-like cells of the inner ear.
With the help of zebrafish, which are very similar in structure to humans, the team found evidence that with profound hearing loss, the neurons of the brain are altered in a way that would change how people learn. The team further found that when they replaced the missing otoferlin protein in the zebrafish, the brain again rewired itself to some degree.
“We hope this work is a step toward treatment, and also toward better schemes for those who are deaf, for interacting with them and teaching them,” said Colin Johnson, associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics at OSU. “If you grow up without that protein, it’s not just a matter of throwing the gene back in. If you’re born deaf and grow up deaf, it seems the physical wiring of your brain is a little different.”
This is not the first research to indicate that even small amounts of hearing loss can lead to brain rewiring. Some experts believe that reorganization in the brain in some cases could help explain the link between hearing loss and cognitive decline.
While our understanding of the brain, its role in hearing, and how it is altered by hearing loss is still limited, new findings like these offer important insight for hearing healthcare professionals looking for solutions for the millions of people out there living with hearing loss.
If you have questions about your hearing or believe you may have a hearing loss, contact our office to schedule an appointment.