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Your Brain’s Response to Hearing Loss

I sat down to read a work of fiction the other day when a very familiar saying jumped off the page – “I’d rather be deaf than blind.”   No matter how many times I’ve heard this, it doesn’t get any easier to process.

How does one determine that the sense of sight is more important than that of hearing?  And why is it always deafness versus blindness?  I’ve never heard a single person utter the words “I’d rather lose my sense of touch than my ability to taste!”

It’s not like we get a choice in the matter; so, I’m left to wonder why people even say it.  Perhaps it’s because they’ve never experienced it.  Remember – you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

After Dr. Frank Lin, of Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, published his studies linking hearing loss to brain function decline and dementia, there have been a flurry of studies on how the brain responds to hearing loss.

Most recently, Neuroscience News published an article chronicling a study by Dr. Anu Sharma, of the Department of Speech Language and Hearing Science at University of Colorado.  In her study, Dr. Sharma outlines the significant impact of cross-modal reorganization of the brain.

Included in this study were participants ages 37-68 with adult-onset hearing loss.  This controlled study required the participants to have a normal low frequency hearing with only mild to moderate high frequency hearing loss.

What is cross-modal reorganization and why is it a problem?  Let’s try an analogy…

You have a home with children, who each have their own bedroom.  When your children move out of your home, you won’t get rid of the bedrooms; rather you will convert them into usable space – like an office or a guest room – same space but used in a different way.

That is what happens to your brain when you start to lose your hearing.  The brain scans depicted in Dr. Sharma’s study clearly show how the brain takes over the auditory system and uses it for other purposes.  While this is the first time we are seeing this, it’s not the first time we’ve heard of it.  As an example, when my grandmother went blind in her sense of hearing was heightened.  What is new and most concerning is that it is happening in young individuals with mild cases of hearing loss.

When a person waits until they have significant issues with their hearing to get help, the area meant for auditory processing hasn’t been used in so long it doesn’t quite understand the information it’s receiving; because the area receiving the signal is no longer being used for that purpose.

So what do I feel is worse than deafness?  The ability to hear sound but not understand it.

For those interested in more detailed information from Dr. Sharma’s study, her report with scans is available at my office.

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