Pioneering research, being carried out in Nottingham, into the development of cochlear implants - hearing devices that convert sound into neural signals - and the future of this technology will feature in a special focus issue of Nature Neuroscience on Tuesday 26 May 2009.
The focus issue ‘How do we hear?' looks at the neurobiology of hearing and highlights the work of the MRC Institute of Hearing Research (IHR) and the National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing (NBRUH) in partnership with The University of Nottingham and Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust (NUH).
The article ‘Beyond cochlear implants: awakening the deafened brain' by Professor David Moore, Director of IHR and Scientific Director of NBRUH, and Professor Robert Shannon from the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, discusses the ability of the brain to learn how to use cochlear implants and the importance of understanding this process to the future of implant technology.
Seven perspective and review articles will be highlighted covering recent advances in our understanding of how sounds are converted into neural signals, how these processes go wrong in hearing loss, and what attempts to rectify such hearing loss tell us about brain function.
Hearing loss affects the majority of older adults, resulting in greatly reduced quality of life. In children it can impede proper development. Cochlear implants have provided hearing to more than 120,000 deaf people, both young and old.
Recent developments include direct electrical stimulation of the brain, bilateral implants and implantation in children less than one year old. The article discusses research which is beginning to refocus on the role of the brain in providing benefits to implant users. It explains that the auditory system is able to use the highly impoverished input provided by implants to interpret speech, but this only works well in those who have developed language before their deafness or in those who receive their implant at a very young age.
Dave Moore said: "Hearing research is undergoing a revolution as our focus shifts from the ear to the brain. The incredible ability of the brain to learn is essential for gaining maximum benefit from hearing aids and cochlear implants and for optimal listening to sounds in noisy places."
In January 2004 IHR embarked on an ambitious and exciting new programme of work focussing on the auditory brain. This work includes research on the human and animal auditory cortex, auditory attention, learning and development, hearing disability and handicap, hearing with cochlear implants and hearing aids, and measures of hearing impairment.
NBRUH was founded in April 2008 and is the result of a unique partnership between The University of Nottingham, the Medical Research Council, and the NUH. Its slogan is ‘Learning to treat hearing loss'. It is located in Ropewalk House, on the City's edge, also home to Nottingham's main NHS Audiology Service. NBRUH develops and steers hearing and learning research towards the development of services and products that will have direct patient benefit. With funding of £3.75m over the next four years from the Department of Health through its National Institute for Health Research major research programmes at NBRUH include improving the outcome for babies receiving bilateral cochlear implants, training older people to make best use of their impaired hearing, and developing learning-based treatments for tinnitus.