Can you hear me now? No, Barker Associate Professor of Neuroscience Lynne Bianchi isn't parroting a Verizon commercial. She's investigating the changes that occur in the auditory centers of the brain as people age, and how these changes may interfere with an individual's hearing. Katie Au '06, a neuroscience major with a minor in chemistry, is conducting auditory evaluations for Bianchi as part of her senior honors project.
"Many older people suffer hearing loss due to changes in the inner ear," Bianchi says. "But some may also have difficulties processing words or temporal patterns. This may be due to changes in the auditory centers in the brain and could help explain why hearing aids don't work for everybody."
Bianchi, who originally was trained as a clinical audiologist, developed this study after volunteering at the Cleveland Hearing and Speech Center (CHSC), where she tested children for auditory processing disorders. Bianchi's decision to focus on older test subjects was influenced in part by the lack of consensus regarding the effects of aging on the brain's auditory processing centers.
"This research is very exciting because it could affect the way we deal with hearing loss in seniors and how we fit them for hearing aids," says Bridgid Whitford, a senior audiologist at the CHSC and a member of the honors committee that will evaluate Au's research.
Au worked in Bianchi's lab during her sophomore year, studying the development of the inner ear. Her desire to attend medical school and then work in the field of public health demanded a project that would provide her with the clinical skills for a career in that field and encourage her interest in medical research.
"I'm interested in the science of medicine as well as the ways in which health care is delivered across diverse patient populations," says Au. "Not only has this project given me the opportunity to work directly with our volunteers, which I hope will prepare me to interact with patients as a physician, but it has helped better my understanding of public health research."
Bianchi and Au conducted the bulk of their research last month, spending three to five hours a day in the lab testing local volunteers for hearing loss and auditory processing disorders. After the hearing study is finished, Au will analyze the results and compile her findings. Bianchi hopes to use Au's data as a baseline for future studies.
"We're in a very early phase of the study," Bianchi says. "But Katie's research is laying the foundation for an ongoing study that will help us better understand what the brain does with the sounds we hear. Our long-term goal is to be able to help people understand their hearing losses better and ultimately provide better rehabilitation services."