Pleasing to the Ears: UT Research May Help Hearing Aid Users

For millions of hearing aid users, research under way at the University of Tennessee may prove to be sweet music to their ears.

Researcher tests subject
Researcher tests subject’s hearing
Dissatisfaction and frustration with hearing aids lead many people to stop using, even discard, their expensive hearing devices, UT Professor Emeritus Anna Nabelek said.
Nabelek and a team of UT researchers have developed a two- to three-minute test which can be used to predict with 85 percent accuracy whether hearing aid users will succeed in using their hearing aids. The researchers say audiologists can use this test to determine whether patients are good candidates for traditional hearing aids or whether they might need higher-tech devices or additional help in adjusting to their hearing aids.

In addition, the researchers are looking at whether therapy or even medication might prove to be useful in helping patients become successful hearing aid users.

Nabelek, who pioneered the work, and other researchers within UT’s Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology, will be the focus of the October issue of the Journal of American Academy of Audiology (volume 17, issue 9), a journal for the world’s largest professional organization for audiologists.

The Noise Factor
In a test developed by UT researchers, an individual listens to recorded speech and tunes the volume to his “most comfortable listening level” (MCL). Multi-talker babble is then added and the listener increases the volume until it is the most he can “put up with” without becoming tense or tired. This is his background noise level (BNL). The difference between the listener’s MCL and BNL is his acceptable noise level or ANL.

The researchers have found that people with high ANLs — those who can’t accept much background noise — are less likely to be successful at wearing hearing aids.

UT studies, funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)/Andrus Foundation, have established that ANL is not related to age, gender, hearing sensitivity, type of background noise, preference for background sounds, or speech understanding in noise.

Research at UT also has shown that brain responses are different for people with low ANLs and people with high ANLs, indicating that acceptance of background noise might be inherent to individuals. Other studies may help pinpoint exactly where in the brain a person’s ANL is set. This could guide researchers toward the best way for treating patients.

Therapy, meds and more
In addition to trying to acquaint audiologists with the ANL test and how it can help them work with hearing aid patients, UT researchers have started looking for ways to help people with high ANLs become more successful at wearing hearing aids.

Among the possibilities they’re studying are high-tech hearing devices, therapy and medications.

Nabelek said therapy is already being used to help patients with tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, “tune out” that constant distraction. UT researchers are studying whether similar therapy might help hearing aid users “tune out” background noise.

Another study done at UT showed that college students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were more accepting of background noise when they were taking their medicine.
“This is one of the first studies to show you can change someone’s ANL with medication,” said Melinda Freyaldenhoven, who recently completed her doctorate at UT and accepted a position at Louisiana Tech University. Freyaldenhoven said more research is needed to determine whether medication — and what medication — might help hearing aid patients.

Contacts:

Amy Blakely, (865) 974-5034, amy.blakely@tennessee.edu
Anna Nabelek, (865) 974-1806, anabelek@utk.edu
Melinda Freyaldenhoven, (865) 368-2802 or (318) 257-4764, mfreyald@utk.edu or melinda@latech.edu
Patrick Plyler, (865) 974-7588, pplyler@utk.edu
Ashley Harkrider, (865) 974-1810, aharkrid@utk.edu
Joanna Tampas, (865) 974-1787, jwebster@utk.edu