Many combat veterans suffer hearing loss from blast waves that makes it difficult to understand speech in noisy environments – a condition called auditory dysfunction – which may lead to isolation and depression. There is no known treatment.
Building on promising brain-training research at the University of California, Riverside related to improving vision, researchers at UC Riverside and the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research are developing a novel approach to treat auditory dysfunction by training the auditory cortex to better process complex sounds.
The team is seeking public support to raise the estimated $100,000 needed to fund research and develop a computer game they believe will improve the brain’s ability to process and distinguish sounds.
“This is exploratory research, which is extremely hard to fund,” said Aaron Seitz, UCR professor of neuropsychology. “Most grants fund basic science research. We are creating a brain-training game based on our best understanding of auditory dysfunction. There’s enough research out there to tell us that this is a solvable problem. These disabled veterans are a patient population that has no other resource.”
Seitz said the research team is committed to the project regardless of funding, but donations will accelerate development of the brain-training game by UCR graduate and undergraduate students in computer science and neuroscience; pilot studies on UCR students with normal hearing; testing the game with veterans; and refining the game to the point that it can be released for public use.
Auditory dysfunction is progressive, said Alison Smith, a graduate student in neuroscience studying hearing loss in combat vets who is a disabled veteran. Nearly 8 percent of combat veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from traumatic brain injury, she said. Of those, a significant number complain about difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments, even though they show no external hearing loss.
“Approximately 10 percent of the civilian population is at risk for noise-induced hearing loss, and there have been more than 20,000 significant cases of hearing loss per year since 2004,” added Smith, who served in the Army National Guard as a combat medic for five years.
This research also may help many other hearing-impaired populations, including musicians, mechanics and machinists; reduce the effects of age-related hearing loss; and aid individuals with hearing aids and cochlear implants.
“This kind of training has never been done before,” Seitz said. “We’re taking what we know about the building blocks of speech and what we know about the auditory cortex and the building blocks of hearing, and developing a way to retrain the auditory cortex to process complex sounds.”
The goal is to revive the auditory processing system that was damaged by blast waves and improve hearing, he said. “They may not hear as well as they did before the damage occurred, but we’re hoping to get them to a more normal point.”
UC Riverside launched the research project after audiologists at the Veterans Administration hospital in Loma Linda approached UCR neuroscientist Khaleel Razak about the hearing difficulties faced by returning combat veterans after he presented a seminar on age-related hearing loss. Razak is a consultant on the project.
In addition to Seitz and Smith, team members include Frederick J. Gallun, a researcher at the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research and associate professor in otolaryngology and the Neuroscience Graduate Program at Oregon Health and Science University; Victor Zordan, UCR associate professor of computer science who specializes in video game design and intelligent systems; and Dominique Simmons, a cognitive psychology graduate student studying audiovisual speech perception.
Seitz said he hopes to begin testing the game on veterans by summer 2015.
“Whether or not you agree with the war, these are people who have gone overseas to serve their country,” he said. “When they come back, it’s our responsibility to care for them. We have to find a way to help our disabled vets. Right now, there’s nothing out there for veterans who are suffering this kind of hearing loss. This is our best shot.”
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