Clinical trials shed light on hearing loss and other auditory conditions
Participants help contribute to medical research while gaining access to new treatments
While there is currently no cure for hearing loss, researchers across the country are conducting clinical trials with the goal of finding new treatments that improve the lives of children and adults with hearing loss.
Studies help shed light on potential new treatments, as well as identify important trends, such as the links between hearing loss and dementia, notes Samantha Gustafson, AuD, PhD, CCC-A, a researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Utah.
Generally, this research falls into two different categories: clinical trials and observational studies. Observational studies often use survey data, questionaries or analyze patient data for trends and correlations.
In clinical trials, also known as interventional studies, study participants receive specific interventions that might include new medications, devices, or procedures. Some of the people in the trial many not receive the intervention, known as the control group.
A look a recent research shows just how important these investigations are. New developments include:
Hearing aids may reduce cognitive decline: Hearing loss and dementia are two health conditions that impact older adults. Research published in the February 2023 issue of JAMA Neurology found the use of hearing aids and cochlear devices was associated with a decreased risk of dementia. The study results build on previous research studying the links between cognition, dementia and hearing loss.
Regrowing cells to help with hearing: Researchers at the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, are examining how hearing loss caused by the death of cochlear hair cells might be restored through regeneration from supporting cells. Having found that mice, birds, and fish can regenerate these hair cells, researchers are working to identify the mechanisms that could promote this type of regeneration in humans. Their research was published in the January 2023 issue of Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience.
Apple AirPods might double as hearing aids: Researchers are looking at how Apple’s popular earbuds might provide an affordable hearing aid option, while also reducing the stigma surrounding hearing aids. A recent study found that the AirPods Pro are on par with medical device hearing aids, although they can’t replace medical devices in all situations. In addition, features such as Live Listen, allow people with mild to moderate hearing loss to amplify sounds, while Conversation Boost, allows users to achieve a boost in sound with conversations. The research was published in the December 2022 issue of iScience.
Listening fatigue in kids: A recent observational study Gustafson worked on examined listening-related fatigue in children with hearing loss. “School-age children with hearing loss are at higher risk for listening-related fatigue because they have to put forth more effort to listen in class,” Gustafson says. “Children with hearing loss often have to work harder to understand and process their teacher’s speech over the noises in a busy school.”
Gustafson says listening-related fatigue is currently being investigated in a number of clinical trials.
“Both children and adults with hearing loss can experience listening-related fatigue,” she says. “We think it can negatively affect a patient’s quality of life, leading to reduced levels of social activity and isolation, while also affecting a child’s performance at school and overall well-being.”
A need for study participants
Both kids and adults are needed, but a number of obstacles can get in the way, Gustafon noted, and scientists sometimes struggle to find enough participants. These obstacles include:
Difficulties with travel logistics/finance
Gustafson says that asking patients and their families to visit a research facility and participate in a clinical study over a three-to-four-month period can pose a hardship for many. “We try to make the clinical studies as non-cumbersome as possible,” she says. “Some of the larger healthcare organizations can compensate families for travel costs, lodging, and gas, while others offer participants an honorarium.”
There’s also a push to “decentralize” clinical trials that are executed through telemedicine and mobile/local health care providers.
Lack of awareness
At the University of Utah, Gustafson says it’s common practice for her staff to reach out to pediatric audiologists with information on upcoming clinical studies encouraging them to pass out flyers to patients and their families that might be good candidates for upcoming studies. Yet many healthcare providers aren’t aware of clinical studies that might be beneficial for their patients.
Clinical trials are not just for end-of-the-road treatment options
Gustafson notes that many patients and providers aren’t aware of the vast number of clinical studies being offered. In addition, some patients mistakenly believe clinical trials are just for those who have exhausted all other treatment options.
“Typically, when families learn about our research studies, they’re very excited,” she says. “Addressing issues such as listening-related fatigue is something many parents have been grappling with but might not have realized was something other children with hearing loss experience, too. They’re typically open to any research that might help their children.”
Interested in joining a clinical trial?
Gustafson advises patients interested in participating in a clinical study to contact the audiology department at their local research university or hospital. She also cautions that the research process often moves slow.
“It can take a couple of years for a research study to take place, then for the research to get published and for the findings to be implemented in clinical practice,” she says. “While it doesn’t happen overnight and patients might not see immediate change, it doesn’t mean their participation wasn’t invaluable.”