Identifying your child’s hearing loss as soon as possible is the key to the development of their speech and language skills. But without their ability to participate in the hearing testing process, audiologists are working with limited information. One researcher thinks he identified the answer from an unlikely source — owl research.
New Use of Old Owl Research
Dr. Vinash Bala is a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon. About 20 years ago he was working on a research project to see if he could condition barn owls to respond when they heard different sounds. While setting up his experiment, Bala noticed that every time there was an unexpected sound, like a door closing down the hall, the owls’ eyes would dilate.
While Bala’s study on owl conditioning may not have been working, he realized the potential of involuntary pupil response as a way to measure hearing. After figuring out that humans have the same involuntary pupil response to new sounds as his barn owls, Bala knew they were onto something. He explained, “What I realized was that we could also use this in people who are unable to respond for one reason or another. And the biggest such group of people is infants, because babies can’t tell us what they’re thinking.”
Current Pediatric Hearing Testing
Pediatric audiologist and partner on Bala’s new project, Dr. Kristy Knight explains, “One of the things that we really struggle [with] young children is knowing, can they recognize the difference between sounds like ‘else’ versus ‘elf’, for example? Our regular hearing tests don’t tell us that. We have to wait till the child has some amount of language development to really measure that clinically.”
Audiologic screenings for young children currently include:
- Auditory brainstem response – measures the brain’s activity in response to sound
- Otoacoustic emissions – measures if the ear produces an emission, which is a normal reaction to sound
A pupil response-focused hearing test would provide audiologists with another tool.
According to Bala, “What it involves essentially is putting a baby in his mother’s lap or in a high chair playing sounds… and at the end of 15 minutes, the computer just comes that gives you up yes or no answer.”
Bala recently received a small grant from the National Institute of Health to develop this new test. He expects to produce a prototype this fall.
To learn more about the importance of identifying hearing loss quickly in young children or to schedule an appointment with a hearing professional, contact San Francisco Audiology today.