This weeks featured research

This months featured Research Boffin!

Who are you?

My name is Dr Hannah Brotherton and I am a postdoc researcher at the University of South Florida…and I am all about the ears and the brain!

Ok, tell me something about your work!

My work involves investigating what is known as the neural gain mechanism in the auditory system in normal hearing people after they wear an earplug for a week or so.

Ok, let me break that down for you. Simply put, I investigate how the activity of the brain, i.e. neural gain, compensates for a hearing loss. To do this, I ask normal hearing individuals to wear an earplug that simulates a high-frequency hearing loss (a very common form of hearing loss in today’s population). I measure their brain activity before and after they wear an earplug to investigate how the brain compensates for the hearing loss.

Give me the bare bones i.e. the background!

Think of it like turning the volume up on a radio when you can’t hear anything. That’s kinda what our brain does in response to a hearing loss.

The brain likes to be active around a set mean level. When you have a hearing loss, the normal level of sensory activity entering the brain is reduced, and as a result this reduces the mean level of brain activity. The brain doesn’t like this and so compensates for the reduction in hearing by turning its own ‘volume’ i.e. neural gain, up.

Gotcha…now give me the bigger picture!

The problem with this, is that in some cases, the brain activity can be over amplified. This is one theory for the development of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hyperacusis (an over sensitivity to normally tolerable sounds).

So what do you hope to find?

My research hopes to answer many unanswered questions, which will help build a bigger picture of how this mechanism works

Such questions that remain unanswered are:

  • How quickly does neural gain change after wearing an earplug?
  • How quickly does neural gain recover after we remove the earplug?
  • Does neural gain only change at the frequencies affected by the earplug?
  • What tests are reliable enough to measure changes in neural gain?
  • Is the change in neural gain the same in different age populations?

What does the future hold?

If we can understand how to manipulate the neural gain mechanism, then maybe we can manipulate it in tinnitus and hyperacusis patients

If we can trick the brain of tinnitus and hyperacusis patients into thinking too much sound in now entering the brain i.e. by means of wearing a hearing aid of sound generator device, then we could reduce the abnormally increased levels of neural gain and potentially alleviate some of the symptoms of tinnitus and hyperacusis.

It’s a pretty neat idea, and its gaining more and more interest in the field of tinnitus and hyperacusis.

If you want to find out more about Hannah’s research, leave a comment below. You can also find out more about of her work, tinnitus and hyperacusis from the links below.

Thank you for reading!

Interesting links:

For a spot of light reading, here is a review article that talks about the research Hannah is interested in:

Also, here are some helpful tinnitus and hyperacusis information links: