The National Institute on Aging awarded more than $8 million to the University of Maryland to develop an innovative approach for addressing hearing loss and communication challenges that affect millions of older Americans. The five-year, multidisciplinary research project will combine expertise from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences; the A. James Clark School of Engineering; the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences; and the Center for Advanced Study of Language.
“Cross-disciplinary collaboration, by its nature, allows researchers to develop creative solutions to the multifaceted grand challenges facing society today,” said UMD Vice President for Research Laurie E. Locascio. “The results of this research have the potential to positively affect the lives of so many people, and exemplifies the University of Maryland’s mission to perform rigorous scientific research with transformative impact.”
The overarching goal of the research will be to examine processes at the neural level that cause auditory and speech perception difficulties with aging, and to determine whether the brain can be effectively “rewired” through auditory and cognitive training to overcome these hearing and speech obstacles. To achieve this aim, the UMD research team will focus on three distinct projects:
- Project 1 will examine whether neurons in the auditory cortex of the brain can be reorganized through specific training exercises.
- Project 2 will assess the effectiveness of focused strategies in helping people process acoustic signals, including rapid speech—a common obstacle for senior citizens.
- Project 3 will combine cutting-edge neuroimaging techniques—such as magnetoencephalography (MEG) and pupilometry—to measure the brain’s ability to form new neural connections following auditory and behavioral training.
“There are many training programs designed to help people deal with hearing loss as they get older,” said Professor Sandra Gordon-Salant from the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, who will serve as the overall project’s lead investigator. “What we don’t know is how well these training programs work and if they result in a true rewiring of the brain. We’re thrilled to have compiled this dynamite team that will help provide answers to these important questions.”
According to a recent publication by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, nearly half of all Americans 65-years-old and above struggle with age-related hearing loss. That percentage climbs to 63 percent for people older than 70. Combined with data from the U.S. Census Bureau, that means roughly 25 million older Americans are currently dealing with hearing loss—a number likely to increase to 35 million by the year 2030. The biggest communication complaint of those with age-related hearing loss is difficulty understanding speech in challenging situations, which often leads to isolation and depression.
“We think that as the population ages, they’re going to be more demanding about solutions to their problems,” Gordon-Salant said. “Hearing aids are beneficial but they can’t do it all. There is a tremendous need for effective training programs and this research has the potential to transform the nature of rehabilitative services for millions of older people with communication problems.”
Gordon-Salant will be joined on the UMD research team by:
- Shihab Shamma, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Institute for Systems Research
- Patrick Kanold, Department of Biology and Institute for Systems Research
- Jonathan Fritz, Institute for Systems Research
- Matthew Goupell, Department of Hearing & Speech Sciences
- Samira Anderson, Department of Hearing & Speech Sciences
- Jonathan Simon, Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, Department of Biology, and Institute for Systems Research
- Stefanie Kuchinsky, Center for Advanced Study of Language
- Didier Depireux, Institute for Systems Research
- Edward Smith, Department of Psychology