Selective hearing is all in the mind, finds new study that could help partially deaf


 Scientists said the 'cocktail party' problem, where someone struggles to 'zoom in' on what a friend is saying in noisy surroundings is more down to that person's brain and not their ear.

A team from Deafness Research UK at the University College London Ear Institute, are looking at the brain's ability to focus its listening attention on a single speaker amid background chatter, but also respond if someone calls our name.

They found the brain plays a greater role than previously thought in the auditory process. They hope their research will benefit the deaf and hard of hearing.

Vivienne Michael, chief executive of Deafness Research UK, said: 'Scientists are particularly interested in how the central auditory system is able to cope with noisy environments; a major challenge for hearing research over the next decade will be to improve the performance of cochlear implant devices.

'We are only just beginning to appreciate the role the brain and this research gives us hope for improving not just the performance of implants and hearing aids, but the lives of people with hearing disabilities everywhere.'

The UCL team is using a variety of techniques to investigate the issue, including brain recordings, computer modelling and human neurophysiology, using electroencephalogram (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Research has shown it is particularly those with only one functional ear who are more disturbed by interfering noise.

It is believed the auditory system performs a cross-correlation between the signals coming from each ear and that the brain is capable of analysing the pattern to determine the signal from the desired sound source.

The brain has been described as a radio, selecting which channel we should pay attention to from the many it receives.

It may also have its own mechanism for selection, depending on the importance of the sound stimulus, for example a sudden warning.

Ms Michael added: 'Implant users struggle to pick up speech in noisy environments such as pubs and city streets.

'Future research in this field should aim to understand how to match the electronic signals of a cochlear implant with the brain's requirements for listening in noise.'