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Not Just for Sleeping: White Noise Can Improve Your Hearing

Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you turn on relaxing sounds before bed? White noise is used by many to drift off to dreamland at night with machines and even smartphone applications replicating the noise, but a new study by the University of Basel has found that white noise may be able to do much more than help you catch some Z’s. Though it is essentially an extra background noise, researchers have concluded that it can make hearing pure sounds more precise, a realization with the possibility of aiding in the future development of cochlear implants.

How Is White Noise Special?

Most of us associate white noise with the sound an old television set makes without a signal, but white noise is far different than other noise. By definition, white noise is described as a random signal made up of sounds from all the frequencies the human ear can hear, but at the same exact intensity. How does that help you sleep and hear? Since it is created from all of the frequencies the ear and brain can perceive, no sound is uniquely distinct, turning everything you hear into a blurred “hissing” or “shushing” sound. This continuous sound makes it much easier for us to sleep through things such as a door slamming or a ringing phone, as they are folded into the blur and muffled. Next time you put on white noise before going to bed, remember that you are hearing every sound from every frequency between 20Hz to 20,000Hz all at once.

University of Basel’s Findings

Your brain has an extraordinary ability to pick out relevant information from less relevant background noise thanks to an area that processes auditory stimuli called the auditory cortex. Led by Professor Dr.Tania Rinaldi Barkat from the Department of Biomedicine, the University of Basel’s team investigated sound perception and sound discrimination in a challenging sound environment.
Past studies have concluded that the distinction between sounds becomes more difficult the closer they are in frequency, which led researchers to believe that introducing white noise would make the task even more challenging. Despite their beliefs, the opposite was observed, with research concluding that “the brain’s ability to distinguish subtle tone differences improved when white noise was added to the background. Compared to a quiet environment, the noise thus facilitated auditory perception.” But how?

White Noise Reduced Neuronal Activity

Data presented by the group had found that white noise reduced the activity of the nerve cells in the auditory cortex by a significant margin. In contradictory fashion, this inhibition of the neuronal activity led to a more precise perception of pure tones. We found that less overlap occurred between populations of neurons during two separate tone representations,” stated Dr. Barkat. “As a result, the overall reduction in neuronal activity produced a more distinct tone representation.”

This Conclusion May Help In The Future

According to Dr. Barkat, it is possible that cochlear implants could use an effect similar to white noise in order to improve the frequency resolution and in turn, the hearing of their users. To determine whether white noise may help you, speak to a hearing health professional about possible options.

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The Future Is Today: Brain-Controlled Hearing Aids

When you imagine what the future will be like in, say, 20 years, what do you see? Pop culture fosters expectations of flying cars, personal jetpacks, hoverboards, and much more. Some recent technological advances even seem like something you would find in a science fiction novel, not in real life—like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality technologies.
Another futuristic advancement that may soon be a reality is more closely related to current hearing devices than to flying cars: brain-controlled hearing aids. Hearing aids have already seen numerous advances and developments in recent years, making them more effective than ever before. Today’s hearing aids are smaller, more comfortable, more discreet, and more powerful than those of years past.
Even with recent advances, hearing aids are still imperfect. One area where hearing aid users often notice a big difference from before they wore or needed hearing aids is in listening to a speaker when other noise is present. In a person with normal hearing, your brain distinguishes between the target speaker and all other noises, allowing you to focus on the target and minimize your attention to other speakers or sounds.
However, hearing aids cannot automatically perform this same function. If you increase the volume on your hearing aid in an effort to better hear the target speaker, you are also increasing the volume on all of the background noise. Some hearing aids allow the user to identify a target speaker by turning their head or gaze towards the target speaker, or by manually selecting the target speaker. These features are helpful yet imperfect; if the hearing aid user cannot maintain a gaze in the direction of the target speaker, does not want to use manual selections, or the target speaker is very close to another speaker, these features come up short.
Enter brain-controlled hearing aids. Previous research has determined that when a person focuses their listening efforts on a certain speaker in a noisy environment, their brain waves track the voice of the target speaker. The aim of a brain-controlled hearing aid is to monitor the brainwaves of the user in order to facilitate hearing and amplifying the voice of the target speaker.
Although much research and development remains to be explored in this field, recent research has shown promise in separating and amplifying the sound of a target speaker among background noise and other speakers. In a 2019 experiment, researchers used an auditory attention decoding (AAD) process to detect and amplify a target speaker among mixed background noise. The study participants indicated that it was significantly easier to follow the voice of the target speaker in the AAD-enhanced audio than in the original mixed audio. This advance can be used in brain-controlled hearing aids to amplify the voice of the target speaker and enable the listener to better follow a specific voice.
One major obstacle that remains to be overcome by researchers is determining a noninvasive and nonintrusive way to monitor the brain signals of the hearing aid user. This, along with an AAD process that accurately and rapidly identifies the target speaker, will present a challenge for researchers and developers. Still, the promise of brain-controlled hearing aids is very real and is closer than we may realize today.
For more information about brain-controlled hearing aids and other exciting advancements in the audiology field, we encourage you to contact our hearing professional today.

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How Clean is Too Clean? Cotton Swabs Can Be Harmful To Your Ears

Most would agree that good hygiene is an important aspect of your health, but how clean is too clean? When it comes to your ears, cleaning them with cotton swabs can actually damage your hearing and your eardrum. Despite their common usage in movies or at your local pharmacy, Q-Tips can be more harmful than helpful, leading the Scottish Parliament to ban plastic cotton buds this year in an effort to combat excessive litter and reduce their usage for inadvisable ear cleaning. Though it is admirable to try and maintain a healthy body, there is a wide consensus against cotton swabs for cleaning your ears. If you are experiencing a blockage, it is best to receive help from a medical professional, but when it comes to your day to day hygiene, let your ears handle it on their own. Your hearing will thank you.

How Can Cotton Swabs Damage My Ear?

Though they seem like the perfect length and shape to clean your ears, there is a consensus against cotton swabs for a reason. Puncturing your eardrum with a cotton swab due to going too far into the ear canal is more common than you might think, especially in children. This accidental puncture can not only damage your hearing but may also result in painful ear infections and an accumulation of fluid and bacteria. Not so hygienic, right?
Depending on the material your Q-Tip is made out of, it may also be abrasive to the sensitive skin within your ear. Some cotton swabs utilize a paper or plastic stick, which can scratch or puncture fragile areas of the ear resulting in infection, vertigo, and even permanent deafness.

Cleaning Your Ear Can Actually Be Counterproductive

Instead of removing ear wax, cotton swabs may actually push it deeper into the ear, compacting it and making your wax harder to remove. This misplaced wax can cause a whole host of problems, including ear fullness, hearing loss, and you guessed it: infection. If a blockage is created by your cotton swab, you may need to seek treatment from a doctor for removal, causing many more problems than they solve.

Your Ear Is Designed To Clean Itself

Earwax, also known as Cerumen, is an important part of your ear’s environment. Cerumen coats the inner ear protecting fragile cells and trapping dust and debris. Without this defense,  debris can travel to your inner ear and damage structures that we require to hear. Removing this natural part of the ear’s ecosystem can not only cause damage to your hearing but will actually make your ear less hygienic. Your body is designed to move earwax out of your ear through natural movements such as chewing, yawning, or skin cell growth inside the ear. Without this process, dust and debris may build up within the ear and cause infection, leading doctors to give simple advice when it comes to cleaning your ears: Don’t!
If you are experiencing ear pain, fullness, hearing loss, or suspect you may have an unnatural amount of earwax, it is best to consult a hearing health professional. You may be suffering from an infection that requires antibiotics or may need something as simple as proper cleaning.

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The Structure Of A Hearing Aid And How It Works

A hearing loss can have a profound impact on your life, your career, and your relationships. If you choose the correct one, a hearing aid can make a significant difference in your ability to communicate while enhancing your enjoyment of life. Knowing what goes into the design of hearing aids will help you choose the most appropriate device for your hearing needs. Regardless of the style of hearing aid you have, all hearing aids share three essential components:

  • The hearing aid microphone picks up sounds and sends them to the amplifier. New technology distinguishes between speech and background noise, making it easier to understand a conversation.
  • Converting sounds from the microphone into an electrical signal and then sending the message to the receiver is the function of the amplifier. Amplification power is dependent upon the severity of the user’s hearing loss.
  • Power source. Batteries power the hearing device. Batteries may be either rechargeable or disposable, depending on the model.

These three components are in all hearing aids. Depending on the design and the severity of your hearing loss, a few other parts might be residing inside your hearing aid.

Buttons And Switches

Hearing aids that are of the receiver-in-the-ear (RITE) type come equipped with a button or a switch. A hearing healthcare professional programs the button or switch to perform different functions such as alternating between settings or increasing and decreasing volume. Make a point of knowing the purpose of your switch.

Wire

A hearing aid wire is typically thin and coated in plastic. The wire extends from the body of the hearing aid to the speaker, which resides in the ear. The transmission of power and signals takes place in the wire. Hearing aid wires feature conductor materials, shielding, and jacketing manufactured for custom hearing solutions.

Receiver/Speaker

Delivering the sound to the ear is the responsibility of the receiver, which is also known as the speaker. When the speaker receives an electrical signal from the amplifier, it converts it to sound. The speaker is inside the ear dome or earmold, depending on the severity of hearing loss and lifestyle.

Domes

A dome is a small piece of silicone that attaches to hearing aid tubing and fits deep in the ear canal. Domes come in an array of shapes and sizes to accommodate the unique anatomy of a person’s ear canal. A hearing healthcare professional can help you pick the appropriate size for a proper fit.

Earmold

Earmolds are plastic or acrylic and fit inside your ear canal to form an acoustic seal for the electronic sound coming in. The fit and the shape of your earmold will depend on the model of hearing aid you are utilizing and the severity of your hearing loss. Because they provide the highest amount of amplification, earmolds are for those with severe to profound hearing loss.
Hearing loss is a severe health issue, so do not ignore it. If you suspect that you may have a hearing loss, schedule a hearing screening with a hearing healthcare professional. Swift acting will significantly enhance the quality of your life.

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Assistive Listening Systems and Your Hearing Prerogative

With over 48 million Americans across the country and an astounding 466 million worldwide suffering from disabling hearing loss, staying up to date with advancing technology and new laws and regulations may be the difference between accessing your right to hear in public and private settings or struggling to receive the help you’re entitled to. Thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), everyone has the right to hear in public places, making sure that if public address systems are used, an assistive listening system (ALS) is available for those with hearing loss as well. With numerous types of ALS systems available, technology has made it much easier to increase your quality of life while in public settings, whether they help eliminate background noise, or are discretely hidden to aid you without needing to use and return noticeable devices.

What Type of ALS’ Are There?

Fortunately, finding venues with an ALS should be simple thanks to ADA guidelines. To abide by the ADA’s Standards for Accessible Design, venues must have signs that properly show that they utilize assistive listening systems by displaying the blue international symbol, and numerous types of systems must be made available upon request with strict standards, right down to the size of audio jacks.

1. Hearing Loops

The most widely used and preferred ALS, hearing loops are a discretely hidden wire that surrounds a seating area that plugs into an amplifier and PA system. The loop then converts sound from the PA system into an electromagnetic signal that is received and translated into sound by telecoils found in most hearing aids.

 2. WiFi Systems

Though these do not follow ADA guidelines and are not an acceptable ALS system in the eyes of the law, WiFi systems are becoming increasingly popular with the rise of smartphones and tablets. While audio is streaming, sound is delivered through a WiFi connection to an appropriate app on your smartphone or tablet. Unfortunately, this requires attendants to use their own device as a receiver, failing to reach the ADA’s requirement of equal access.

3. RF Systems

Requiring a receiver that you must borrow from the venue, RF systems are becoming less popular for more convenient and user-friendly listening systems. Utilizing radio frequencies, RF systems transmit sound to receivers and earbuds like a personal radio. Though the ADA Compatibility Mandate required RF systems to be upgraded in 2012, they are still drastically lacking in technology compared to other systems.

You Have A Right To Hear

Assistive listening systems are increasing the quality of life for the millions of users with hearing loss by fulfilling their right to hear. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, whether it be concert halls, transportation hubs, or places of worship, systems such as the Hearing Loop or WiFi are ensuring that hearing loss will not stop you from participating in the joyful activities of your daily life. Whether you wear hearing aids or are struggling with untreated hearing loss, it’s important to know your rights when it comes to hearing in public places.