Posted on Leave a comment

The Unique Nature of Our Speech Fluctuations

Unique Speech Fluctuations in Humans

We learn to speak even before we realize or remember that we are learning it. At a very young age, by listening and imitating those around us, we say our first words and then quickly fill out our vocabulary to better communicate.
What we also learn to do, something that is almost human alone is to vary the pitch of our speech to add a deeper level of meaning to our words. These unique speech fluctuations can add to the richness of language and have recently been the subject of study at the University of San Francisco.
How we create the “music of speech”
In a recent study published June 28, 2018, in Cell, Benjamin Dichter, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher, senior author Edward F. Chang, MD, professor of neurological surgery and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, Jonathan D. Breshears, MD, and Matthew K. Leonard, PhD, also of UCSF joined together to uncover how the brain controls fluctuations in speech.
The team found that while one part of the brain controls the muscles needed to produce the sounds that makeup speech, it is another area entirely that controls the fluctuations in the voice. Findings came thanks to volunteers undergoing a specialized surgery to remove brain tissue that causes seizures in patients with epilepsy. In some cases, in preparation for this surgery, high-density arrays of tiny electrodes are placed onto the surface of the patients’ brains. To gather data for the research on speech fluctuations, these volunteers fitted with electrodes were asked to read a series of sentences and brain activity was analyzed as they read.
This discovery of another area of the brain controlling speech fluctuation could be a breakthrough finding for those unable to speak. The research team is now looking to the future and the possibility of creating a brain prosthetic that could one day turn thoughts into speech.
“Understanding how we speak goes far beyond just knowing where speech functions are localized in the brain. Even more important is to understand how brain cells actually encode the command signals for the muscles of the mouth and throat that make speech possible,” said Chang.
Hearing loss and voice fluctuations
As incredible as our ability to fluctuate our voice may be, hearing and understanding this added layer of speech can be more difficult for those with hearing loss. Especially when background noise is involved. The good news is that with some smart strategies and the use of our other senses, we can still understand conversations and communicate effectively.

  • If you’ve been diagnosed with hearing loss and have purchased hearing aids, work with your hearing healthcare provider to ensure they are fitted well and adjusted to your needs. Most importantly, be sure to wear them throughout the day to better hear conversations and changing tones in speech.
  • Voice fluctuations are only one part of the communication puzzle. When listening, watch for other cues such as hand and facial gestures or other body language. Our brains compile all the data to come up with a more complete meaning of what we’re hearing. If some quieter nuances are missed, chances are there are other cues to help convey the conversation.
  • Actively listen by asking questions. Not only do questions help you actively engage with the speaker, but they also help you get the most accurate information and meaning from what’s being said.

If you believe you’re missing the more subtle voice fluctuations in conversations, you may have hearing loss. Contact our office to schedule a hearing evaluation today.

Posted on Leave a comment

Listening Activities to Acclimate to Hearing Aids

Hearing Exercises for Getting Used to Hearing Aids

Hearing loss affects almost 40 million people in the U.S. yet only a portion of those use hearing aids to manage their hearing loss. Experts estimate that of those with hearing loss just about 30% of adults over the age of 70 and less than 20% of adults between the ages of 20 and 69 use hearing aids. While there are many reasons people choose not to use hearing aids, many people decide not to continue using them because they have difficulty acclimating to them.
If you are one of those who gave up using hearing aids out of initial frustration or you’re just getting started with hearing aids, listening activities can help.
Hearing aids are powerful, but not magic
Over the last couple of decades, even the last couple of years, hearing aids have progressed more than many could have imagined. They are now faster and more effective than ever, revolutionizing how people with hearing loss hear.
What many don’t realize when opting for a hearing aid is that hearing better still takes time. While hearing aids can make a significant impact, they can’t do it overnight, and the longer you’ve lived with hearing loss before getting hearing aids, the longer it may take.
You can thank your amazingly adaptable brain for that! Experts believe that the principles of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to adapt, reorganize and create new connections for most efficient operation, come into play even in the earliest stages of hearing loss. It is neuroplasticity that we then have to rely on when we are regaining hearing with the help of hearing aids.
How to rebuild hearing ability in the brain
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither can your brain be rewired to hear better in a day. According to experts, there are two main ways to retrain your brain to hear. The first is by wearing your hearing aids every day, all day (not just when you think you may need them) and the second is through listening activities.
Listening activities are various techniques that help the brain forge new connections to improve hearing. As it rebuilds what has been lost due to hearing loss, hearing aid users experience clearer and more robust hearing ability.  While your hearing healthcare provider can also recommend various activities, these listening activities can help you get started:

  • Read a book out loud
  • Listen to and write descriptions of the sounds around you
  • Use auditory training programs like these
  • Watch a TV show with the closed captioning on
  • As you listen to an audiobook, follow along by reading in the actual book

Hearing aids can help people with hearing loss rejoin the conversation and start hearing more clearly again, but not as quickly as many think. If you’re new to hearing aids, the most important thing to remember is to be patient with the process. It can take time to adjust and retrain your brain, but it’s worth it!
If you’re ready to start managing your hearing health, get started with a hearing evaluation. If you have hearing aids but need help getting adjusted to them, contact us for more listening activity ideas to improve your hearing with brain training.

Posted on Leave a comment

Acclimatizing To Your New Hearing Aids

Hearing Exercises for Getting Used to Hearing Aids

For many people with hearing loss, hearing aids can be a life changer. Instead of having to strain to follow a conversation in a busy restaurant or having to constantly raise the volume of the TV, hearing aids allow people with hearing loss to listen to the world at just the right volume.
While hearing aids are an important tool to maintain one’s quality of life despite hearing loss, many people don’t rush to their hearing healthcare professional as soon as they notice that their hearing isn’t as good as it used to be. Rather, many people end up waiting quite a while before they take action to treat their hearing loss.
Many people with hearing loss avoid getting help from a medical professional for a whole variety of reasons, but most commonly because they are in denial about their hearing loss. Although it is certainly recommended to seek out professional hearing healthcare as soon as possible, many people don’t even realize how much hearing they’ve actually lost.
This is because hearing loss often gets progressively worse over time. Thus, it can be difficult for someone to recognize how much their hearing abilities have changed. Small adaptations here and there, like turning up the TV or asking people to repeat themselves often help people with hearing loss get by, but they are certainly no way to live a high-quality life. The best decision that someone with hearing loss can make is to see a hearing healthcare professional, but that’s only the first step.
Once someone does seek out help from a hearing healthcare provider, treatment can begin. Although a hearing healthcare professional will be able to recommend best treatment options for every individual, many people with hearing loss eventually start to wear hearing aids, which can help them engage with the world just like they did before hearing loss.
Training Yourself For Hearing Aids
Hearing aids might be life-changing little devices, but it’s important to remember that it takes time for our brains to adjust to this new way of hearing. Just like it takes time for our bodies to get back into a workout routine after an injury, our brains need time to relearn how to hear.
While hearing loss may not completely take away one’s ability to hear, it does significantly reduce the amount of information that one’s brain receives. This means that one’s brain has likely started to focus more on the sounds that it can hear and may have stopped using or reallocated neural pathways responsible for other sounds it can’t hear to other tasks. When one uses hearing aids, those missing sounds return and the brain needs to be retrained to be able to properly understand and use those sounds.
Listening Activities
One of the best ways to retrain a brain after hearing loss is to do listening activities. These activities will likely be recommended by a hearing healthcare provider to most people who are new to hearing aids. Just like a physical therapist might recommend shoulder exercises after a rotator cuff injury, doing listening exercises is important for regaining maximum hearing ability with new hearing aids.
Although your hearing healthcare professional will recommend specific activities, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Hearing aids only work when you wear them. Most hearing professionals will tell new hearing aid users that they ought to wear their devices whenever they are awake. Although many people will try to only wear their hearing aids when they think they need them, it’s often best to keep them on throughout one’s waking hours so that one’s brain can adjust to the wide variety of sounds in our daily lives.
  • Hearing exercises take dedication and time. There are a wide variety of different exercises available for people with hearing aids, but the number one most important thing is that a new hearing aid user does the exercises they’re prescribed. The activities don’t do any good if they’re never done.

If you’re a new hearing aid user, you’ve already taken the first step toward better hearing health by seeing your hearing healthcare professional. Getting the most out of your hearing aids takes time, however, so it’s important that you dedicate yourself to retraining your brain to hear all of the sounds in the wonderful world around you by wearing your hearing aids and doing the appropriate exercises.

Posted on Leave a comment

Eureka! New Discoveries About The Inner Ear

New Understanding of the Endolymphatic Sac

Scientists and doctors have been studying the human body for thousands of years. While, at this point, we think we have a good grasp on how the human body works, the body is still, in many ways, a source of mystery and intrigue – particularly when it comes to the function of some lesser known body parts and structures.
Although some very well known body parts, such as the appendix, remain mysterious in function, many of these puzzling structures are smaller and generally unknown to the public, despite having been identified by researchers hundreds of years ago.
One of these body parts – the endolymphatic sac – is a small, fluid-filled pouch located near the inner ear that is hard to study in humans because it is encased by extremely dense bone. While the endolymphatic sac has been known to scientists for about 300 years, no one ever knew what it did. In fact, most models and textbooks neglect to include this tiny structure in diagrams of the inner ear because its function was unknown.
Unknown, that is, until Ian Swinburne, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School noticed the tiny structure pulsing during a time-lapse microscopy study of the inner ear of zebrafish. Alongside his postdoctoral advisor, Sean Megason, Swinburne investigated this small organ and have conducted a number of studies to better understand its function.
The Study
In their most recent study, done in collaboration with some world leading microscopy laboratories, Swinburne and Megason sought to visualize the endolymphatic sac in action. They pieced together a number of different views of the sac until they managed to come up with a clear model for how it functions.
The answer? The endolymphatic sac is a kind of pressure-relief valve that pulses to open and close and regulate the release of fluid from the inner ear.
In many bodily tissues, cells are so tightly connected that fluid cannot pass between them. In the endolymphatic sac, however, Swinburne and Megason found that cells have small flap-like membrane projections called lamella, which overlap with each other to form a barrier. Within the endolymphatic sac, the cells have small gaps between them through which fluid can flow but that are also covered by the lamella which act as valves and pressure regulators.
As fluid pressure builds, Swinburne and Megason found, the sac inflates and the lamellar barrier starts to separate until it reaches a point where it opens to allow fluid to flow out of the sac and ultimately relieve pressure inside. This capacity is important within the inner ear as all of the structures there are interconnected and filled with a fluid that moves in response to sound waves or head movement.
The movement of this fluid is detected by sensory cells which can convert these inputs into neural signals that the brain can understand. It is important for the inner ear to maintain the pressure and chemical composition of this fluid or a number of disorders, such as Meniere’s disease could occur. Scientists have long suspected that the endolymphatic sac is involved in the pressure regulation of the inner ear, but it wasn’t until Swinborne noticed the structure’s function in a zebrafish embryo that it all became clear.
Although the structure and function of the endolymphatic sac is pretty rare in the biological world, the research team suspects that similar mechanisms could exist in other organs such as the eyes, brain, and kidneys which also have pressurized fluid-filled cavities.
Swinburne and Megason’s work has revealed a very unique biological mechanism for the maintenance of fluid pressure and, thus, it could be incredibly important for the future study and treatment of conditions that involve inner ear pressure issues.
Some of these conditions, such as Meniere’s disease, have symptoms such as vertigo, hearing loss, and tinnitus, which could potentially be effectively treated after more research into the function of the endolymphatic sac. Plus, this information could be useful in treating conditions in other organs, such as the eyes and kidneys, which rely on liquid-filled cavities for their proper function.
Although the endolymphatic sac is small, it certainly has a mighty big presence in our hearing health. New research and findings such as those from this study are exciting news for the world of hearing healthcare which could use this information to further develop treatments for a variety of inner ear conditions.