Auditory Deprivation Explained

The human body was designed to be used regularly. It works well if exercise is done every day, whether it's a short walk around the house, exercising in the gym, or swimming in a pool. When it comes to your muscles, whether you use them or you lose them. The auditory system is no different.

Not using your hearing can cause a condition known as 'Auditory Deprivation.' Before we explain what this is, let's look at how we hear in the first place. 

How hearing works

  • Sound waves travel through the ear canal to the eardrum.

  • The eardrum passes vibrations of this sound through the bones of the middle ear into the inner ear.

  • There are thousands of small hair cells inside the inner ear. These cells transform vibrations into electronic signals which the hearing nerve sends to the brain.

  • The brain processes these signals and recognizes it as a specific sound.

What is auditory deprivation?

Auditory deprivation describes a significant reduction in listening capacity and reduced hearing ability in general.

This is because specific sound frequencies are not being picked up by the brain, meaning the auditory centers in the brain lack acoustic information. When left untreated, the ability of people with hearing loss to understand speech becomes more difficult, leading them to perform more poorly when understanding speech in noisy environments. 

Brain shrinkage and auditory deprivation: use it or lose it

The idea that the brain loses its ability to process certain sounds is supported by researchers from Johns Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging. In one of their studies, the researchers compared brain tissue levels over time of those with and without hearing loss.

Researcher Frank Lin, M.D., Ph.D., and his colleagues found that the brain atrophy (shrinkage) rates were accelerated when participants in their study started the study with hearing loss. 

Crucially, people with impaired hearing experienced considerably more shrinkage of their brain structures responsible for sound and speech processing.

The researchers were not shocked that the participant's sound and speech systems were impaired by hearing loss. This may be the result of a deprived auditory cortex that is atrophied by lack of stimulation due to hearing loss.

Ears are only pathways to bring sound through the auditory system to the brain. The brain must translate these high/low-frequency sounds for speech intelligibility.

Causes of auditory deprivation

There are lots of causes of auditory deprivation, but here are the most common:

  • Waiting for too long to use hearing aids. Usually, a hearing loss remains undetected for many years. This deprivation leads to the brain being 'starved' of the sound stimulation it needs.
  • Using only one hearing aid when you need two. This asymmetric set-up weakens the unstimulated further ear over time. You can get a little money saved by buying only one hearing aid instead of a pair, but you're causing auditory deprivation in that ear, which could cause hearing problems in the coming years. Over time the listener without a hearing aid will lose more functionality, and it will be more difficult for the ear to adapt to sound when you finally buy a hearing aid. 

Hearing aids give you the workout your brain needs.

What's the best treatment for auditory deprivation? Avoid it in the first place by treating hearing loss early. 

Hearing aids help restore the frequencies of sound lost when your hearing is damaged. This means your brain can pick them up again, which activates those areas of your brain that have laid dormant because of the initial loss of the sounds. 

A thorough hearing test by a qualified audiologist is recommended to see what sounds you aren't picking up. Then they can work out about a plan to help you hear your best.

When hearing aids are required, it is crucial to work with an audiologist to pick the right devices and have them programmed correctly. Finally, it takes consistent use of the hearing aids to train your brain to recognize and process the sounds successfully. 

Even if you already have hearing loss, it's likely not too late. A 1995 study showed that many patients could regain a sense of speech when equipped with a hearing device in the impacted ear following hearing loss. Other studies have shown that two hearing aids can improve the auditory system, but the more time the patient goes without hearing treatment, the less pronounced the benefits. 

Therefore, when it comes to your hearing, the sooner you use it, the less you'll lose. 

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