Researchers develop word-score model capable of estimating hidden hearing loss

Researchers from Mass Eye and Ear have developed a word-score model capable of estimating the amount of hidden hearing loss in human ears.

In a new study published June 23 in Scientific Reports, a team of researchers at Mass Eye and Ear’s Eaton-Peabody Laboratories determined average speech scores as a function of age from the records of nearly 96,000 ears examined at Mass Eye and Ear. They then compared the data to a previous study at Mass Eye and Ear that had tracked the average loss of cochlear nerve fibers as a function of age. By combining both sets of data, researchers constructed an estimate of the relation between speech scores and nerve survival in people.

According to lead study author Stéphane F. Maison, PhD, CCC-A, principal investigator of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories and associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Harvard Medical School, the new model leads to better evaluations of the cochlear nerve damage in patients and the associated speech-intelligibility deficits that come with the neural loss. The model also offers ways to estimate the effectiveness of hearing loss interventions, including the use of personal sound amplification products and hearing aids.

“Prior to this study, we could either estimate neural loss in a living patient using a lengthy test battery or measure cochlear nerve damage by removing their temporal bones when they’ve died,” said Dr. Maison. “Using ordinary speech scores from hearing tests — the same ones collected in clinics all over the world — we can now estimate the number of neural fibers that are missing in a person’s ear.”

Uncovering hidden hearing loss

Two main factors determine how well a person can hear: audibility and intelligibility. Hair cells, the sensory cells inside the inner ear, contribute to the audibility of sounds — or how loud a sound must be to be detectable. Upon receiving a sound, hair cells pass electrical signals to the cochlear nerve, which then passes those signals to the brain. How well the cochlear nerve relays these signals contributes to the clarity, or intelligibility, of sound processed within the central nervous system.

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