Not being able to hear a person’s voice or follow conversations in a noisy environment is a common problem as we age. One may think that the only solution is to invest in hearing aids. But a new study shows that by using a brain training program hearing can in fact be trained and improved.
The study involved 67 adults age 55 to 70. Half of the participants used an auditory training program (Posit Science, Brain Fitness program) for 40h over 8 weeks. This training program includes computerized tasks that require for instance to repeat back or remember words, to identify short sounds that either ascend or descend in frequency. The other half of the participants (the control group) watched educational videos and were quizzed on their content.
Memory, brain processing speed and the ability to hear words in a noisy setting were tested for all participants. In addition, EEG (a method that uses electrodes on the scalp to pick up brain activity) was used while the participants tried to distinguish sounds.
Participants who used the brain training program were able to pick out 41% more words from background noise compared to control participants. This sharper hearing corresponded to a change in the EEG activity in the brain stem. The signal picked up by the electrodes started earlier after training, suggesting that the training improved the speed at which the brain was able to distinguish speech from background noise.
Participants in the training program also showed improved memory and general speed of processing, replicating the results of earlier studies using the same program.
More research needs to be done to see how long the benefits of the training last. It is likely that booster training sessions are necessary to see a lasting effect. Indeed, a previous study using the same training program showed that the improvements seen in memory and attention were declining after 3 months (Zelinski et al., 2011).
Research so far suggests that training benefits are specific. For instance if you train your memory for numbers you will become better at remembering numbers but this may not transfer to remembering names. The benefits observed after the auditory training are thus likely to be specific to the situation trained, that is distinguishing speech from a noisy background. However this is a situation that is frequently encountered in daily life.
In contrast to hearing aids which only increase audibility, an auditory training program acts directly on the brain neuroplasticity. In other words, the training will change your brain. Here the training both improved the ability of the brain to pick up speech in a noisy setting but also increased the speed at which the brain could do so. The authors of the study (who by the way were not funded by Posit Science) even suggest that their results may represent a “partial reversal of age-related declines”.
More on brain training: Can the brain be trained to multitask?
- Anderson, S. et al. (2013). Reversal of age-related neural timing delays with training. Published online before print February 11, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1213555110.
- Zelinski, E. M., et al. (2011). Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-Based Adaptive Cognitive Training: Results of the 3-Month Follow-Up. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 59(2), 258–265.