Painting for a Cure

By Nicolle Cure

My art is the fuel that ignites my passion for helping others. I use my art as a tool to create so that I can support the causes I believe in. Throughout my life, I have created several collections, for the most part biographical. To date, I've been blessed to have the opportunity to collaborate with animal welfare campaigns as well as education and health research initiatives. I am now proudly raising awareness about a particular cause that is dearest to my heart—hearing loss and vestibular (balance-related) disorders—after experiencing these conditions myself.

  Nicolle painting in her studio. Credit: Lia Selfridge

Nicolle painting in her studio. Credit: Lia Selfridge

On August 4, 2017, I woke up and noticed that the right side of my head was numb. I felt a strong pressure in my right ear and couldn’t hear anything as my ear felt blocked and full. It was really scary and very sudden.

Since that day, I have been in and out the hospital trying to decipher what is wrong with me and how to cure it. My first audiology appointment showed a profound hearing loss in my right ear, and after steroids injected into the middle ear for two months, I was able to recover the ability to hear low frequencies. However, the high frequencies only improved to severe (from profound), which is why I now suffer from tinnitus and I am extremely sensitive to environmental sounds.

My hearing loss was only the beginning. During the initial months, I also suffered from BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo), debilitating vertigo episodes, chronic migraines, constant nausea, and dizziness. My balance was completely off and I swayed to the right when walking. It felt like I was walking on quicksand. Another symptom that persisted for months was chronic fatigue, to the point that I could not get out of bed on certain days. My body felt heavy as if I had a slab of concrete on top of me.

These “invisible conditions” can really affect patients an emotional level. I was completely isolated from the world, I didn’t want to see anyone, and I avoided phone calls and going out. I’ve always been a very independent person and the fact that I couldn’t do anything or go anywhere made me feel frustrated most of the time.

My boyfriend Felipe, a communications professional and music producer, has been the greatest companion, helping me thrive and heal with his patience and love, and for that I am truly grateful. We share a passion for music and going to concerts, but from the time of my hearing loss I avoid loud places and crowds in general. I know music to him means as much as art to me, so I now wear custom musician’s earplugs. I am also investigating a hearing aid for my right ear, which my audiologist recommended after a recent tinnitus assessment to manage my tinnitus and sound sensitivity. Vestibular rehab therapy helped me regain my balance, as I had difficulty walking or even just standing still.

And of course my art has been my most powerful coping mechanism. While I am in the process of creating, I can focus better and forget about my symptoms. Painting makes me ignore my tinnitus even for a short period of time.

This experience has given me the opportunity to create awareness about invisible conditions. It is a fuel that continues to ignite my passion for the arts and for helping others. It has given me a sense of purpose—I truly feel the need to wake up and create something beautiful to deliver a powerful message of positivism in spite of my symptoms.

In “The Colors of Sound” painting collection, I am trying to capture emotions and moods in sound. Using his recording equipment, Felipe showed me the range of frequencies that I was not able to hear anymore. It was a bizarre experience to be able to see the sound waves and frequencies that I could no longer hear. These ink paintings replicate the energy and movement of what was now missing.

Behind every invisible illness there are wonderful individuals with the will to thrive and heal. Helping others has been incredibly therapeutic for me, and I gained so much support from people, too. I want to create a space for dialogue so people can be open about their conditions and find treatments and relief and know that they are not alone in this journey.

Nicolle Cure is an artist based in Miami. “The Colors of Sound” appeared at Art Basel in Miami Beach (December 2017–February 2018).

A better quality of life for Nicolle—and so many others—is dependent on research funding for HHF’s groundbreaking scientific programs.

Please, if you are able, make a contribution to the research that will someday make it possible for Nicolle and millions of others to reclaim their independence.

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Meet the Researcher: A. Catalina Vélez-Ortega

By Yishane Lee

2018 Emerging Research Grants (ERG) awardee A. Catalina Vélez-Ortega received a master’s in biology from the University of Antioquia, Colombia, and a doctorate in physiology from the University of Kentucky, where she completed postdoctoral training and is now an assistant professor in the department of physiology.

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IN HER WORDS:

TRPA1 is an ion channel known for its role as an “irritant sensor” in pain-sensing neurons (nerve cells). Noise exposure leads to the production of some cellular “irritants” that activate TRPA1 channels in the inner ear. The role of TRPA1 channels has been a puzzling project, with most experiments leaving more questions to pursue. My current project seeks to uncover how TRPA1 activation modifies cochlear mechanics and hearing sensitivity, in order to find new therapeutic targets to prevent hearing loss or tinnitus.

My father, our town’s surgeon, fueled my desire to learn. When I asked him how the human heart works, he called the butcher, got a pig’s heart, and we dissected it together. I was about 5 when I learned how the heart’s chambers are connected and how valves work. He also set up an astronomy class at home with a flashlight, globe, and ball when I asked, “Why does the moon change shape?” My father’s excitement kept my curiosity from fading as I grew older. That eager-to-learn personality now drives my career in science and teaching.

My training in biomedical engineering guided my interest into hearing science. The field of inner ear research mixes physics and mechanics with molecular biology and genetics in a way I find extremely attractive. Analytics also intrigues me. People who work with me know how complex my calendar and spreadsheets can get. I absolutely love logging all kinds of data and looking for correlations. I also like to plan ahead—passport renewal 10 years from now? Already in my calendar!

I take dance lessons and participate in flash mobs and other dance performances. But I used to be extremely shy. As a child I simply could not look anyone in the eye when talking to them. I was also terrified of being onstage. It was only after college that I decided to finally correct the problem. Interestingly, taking sign language lessons was very helpful. Sign language forced me to stare at people to be able to communicate. It was terrifying at first, but it started to feel very natural after just a few months.

Vélez-Ortega’s 2018 ERG grant was generously funded by cochlear implant manufacturer Cochlear Americas.

WE NEED YOUR HELP IN FUNDING THE EXCITING WORK OF HEARING AND BALANCE SCIENTISTS!

DONATE TODAY TO HEARING HEALTH FOUNDATION AND SUPPORT GROUNDBREAKING RESEARCH: HHF.ORG/DONATE. Or, for a minimum gift of $30,000, you can create your HHF named research grant and help choose the research topic to be investigated. Please email development@hhf.org if you are interested in naming a grant.

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Visit Our New Website Focused on Ménière's Disease

By Lauren McGrath

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) unveiled today a new microsite dedicated to Ménière's disease, a chronic vestibular (inner ear) condition with no known cure. The content is accessible at www.menieresdisease.org as an extension of the foundation’s primary website, www.hhf.org.

HHF’s www.menieresdisease.org seeks to build awareness of and bring clarity to the “mysterious” condition with simple, informative pages. The goals are to inspire hope among people who live with Ménière's disease and their loved ones, share updates about Ménière's disease from scientists funded by the foundation, and provide a channel through which individuals can donate to life-changing Ménière's disease research. HHF is fortunate to have all administrative expenses covered by its board of trustees and endowment, so 100% of gifts will directly support life-changing research programming.

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Ménière's disease affects approximately 600,000 people in the U.S. The most prominent symptoms include a sensation of ear fullness, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, fluctuating hearing loss, and tinnitus. Some patients benefit from treatments, but far too many remain completely debilitated, bedridden, and unable to work. Episodes of vertigo can strike at anytime without warning and this uncertainty offer triggers anxiety and depression.

Ménière's disease has long been an area of interest for the HHF’s long standing research programs. Inspired by supporters with personal interests in Ménière's disease and gravely concerned by the general lack of research on the subject, HHF declared a greater focus on the condition in 2017 through the establishment of the Ménière's Disease Grants (MDG) program. MDG is exclusively focused on the etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of Ménière's disease. MDG awards scientists up to $125,000 for a two-year grant period is governed by the Ménière's Disease Advisory Board, comprised of senior researchers and physicians throughout the country who review each application for scientific merit and program relevance.

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The face of the new website is Nicolle Cure, a celebrated visual artist diagnosed this year with Ménière's disease and whose life has been devastated by sudden hearing loss and crippling vertigo. Nicolle describes her reactions to the onset of her symptoms: “These ‘invisible conditions’ affect patients an emotional level. I was completely isolated from the world and was frustrated because I couldn’t do anything or go anywhere.” Nicolle is grateful to have art as a most powerful coping mechanism when she feels well. “I wish to use my art to help people be open about their conditions and find treatments and relief and know that they are not alone in this journey.”

HHF encourages our supporters to visit www.menieresdisease.org to learn more about Ménière's disease and to share with friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, or others who may benefit from the reminder that they are not alone and find inspiration in the groundbreaking research that will one day transform lives.




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HHF a Beneficiary of 2018 Cantor Fitzgerald 9/11 Charity Day

By Lauren McGrath

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) graciously took part in Cantor Fitzgerald’s annual Cantor Charity Day on Tuesday, September 11 in New York City, marking the organization’s sixth year of participation in the high-profile philanthropic event. Represented by celebrity ambassador NHL Hall of Famer Martin “Marty” St. Louis, HHF will receive a share of the funds raised to support hearing and balance research by way of the Cantor Fitzgerald Relief Fund.

  From left: Nadine Dehgan, Marty St. Louis, Paul Orlin

From left: Nadine Dehgan, Marty St. Louis, Paul Orlin

The Relief Fund was originally established to aid the families of the Cantor Fitzgerald’s 658 employees who perished in the World Trade Center attacks. The Fund has since expanded to support victims of terrorism, natural disasters, and emergencies, wounded military personnel, and other charitable causes, including HHF. Since its 2001 formation, Charity Day has raised $147 million for worthy causes.

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Accompanied by HHF CEO Nadine Dehgan and Board Member Paul Orlin, Marty enthusiastically helped brokers on the trading floors close deals on the phone—all for charity—at both the BGC Partners and GFI Securities offices in Manhattan. Other celebrity ambassadors included Alec Baldwin, LaChanze, Tony Danza, Gayle King, Lucy Hale, Bill Clinton, and Saquon Barkley.

Marty’s own foundation has supported HHF’s life-changing work in the past and HHF was especially thankful that he dedicated his time to serve as an ambassador for another year. On the day of the event, he tweeted, “I’m proud to help Hearing Health Foundation. Life is beautiful but much better when you can hear what’s around you. Let’s keep pushing.”

“I am grateful to Marty and to Cantor Fitzgerald for making this day possible,” said Nadine Dehgan. “HHF will keep pushing for better treatments and cures and will continue to be a resource to the millions of Americans who live with hearing and balance conditions.”

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A Reminder During Newborn Screening Awareness Month: Infant Hearing Tests Are Vital to Children’s Futures

By Nadine Dehgan

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) joins the healthcare community and all parents in celebrating Newborn Screening Awareness Month.

Newborn screenings assess babies’ health within the first 24 to 48 hours of life. These quick and painless evaluations check for potentially harmful conditions that would otherwise not be apparent at birth. Included in this process are screenings for hearing loss, which is detected in three out of every 1,000 babies born in the U.S. 90 percent of babies identified with hearing loss have parents with typical hearing.

Hospitals use two safe and comfortable newborn hearing screening tests. Otoacoustic emissions (OAE) tests examine the nearly inaudible sounds, or emissions, produced by ear stimulation using a soft foam earphone and microphone. The inner ears of babies with typical hearing produce these emissions when stimulated by sound, while those with a hearing loss greater than 25-30 dB do not. Auditory brainstem response (ABR) tests measures how the hearing nerve responds to sounds. A hearing specialist plays sounds into the baby’s ears, while bandage-like electrodes are placed on the baby’s head to detect brain wave activity. Printed results show a pass or fail result.

A proactive approach to hearing health begins at birth. An early hearing loss diagnosis—before hospital departure—enables parents and families to pursue intervention, such as hearing devices, assistive devices, and/or sign language, as promptly as possible. Intervention of any kind permits children with hearing loss to enjoy healthier outcomes related to speech and language acquisition, academic achievement, and social and emotional development.

“When [profound bilateral] hearing loss was confirmed, I felt I had to do everything in my power,” recalls Dr. Nada Alsaigh, a pathologist, who made sure her son, Alex, was first amplified with hearing aids at three months. “We were lucky to know early, so Alex was not affected in a negative way.”

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“[My son] Ethan received his first set of hearing aids when he was eight weeks old,” explains Jason Frank, a corporate attorney and member of HHF’s Board of Directors. “It’s really been amazing to watch over the last seven years how far he’s come. He has a wonderful appetite for learning.”

Cognitive advancements for children like Ethan and Alex would not be possible without support for universal newborn hearing screening (UNHS) from HHF and likeminded organizations. In 1993, a staggeringly low rate of newborns—five percent—were tested for hearing loss in the hospital. This number increased to 94% by the end of the decade. Today, nearly all babies undergo this vital test.

“The institution of infant hearing screening at birth has been critical to speech and language development in the first two years of life [of a child with hearing loss],” says Anil K. Lalwani, M.D., Columbia University surgeon and member of HHF’s Board of Directors. “Before infant hearing screening was mandated, the average age of diagnosis for hair loss in a child with profound was two-and-a-half or three-years-old—later than recommended to begin intervention.”

In fact, a 2017 University of Colorado Boulder study of children with bilateral hearing loss further underscores the need for identification of hearing loss at a young age. Primary investigator Christine Yoshinaga-Itano, Ph.D., and team found that children who received intervention for hearing loss by six months had significantly higher vocabulary quotients than those who did not.

Though UNHS is highly-regarded by hearing experts like Drs. Lalwani and Yoshinaga-Itano, its security has been jeopardized. Last year, proposed cuts to the 2018 federal budget threatened to remove the $18 million allocated toward newborn hearing screenings in all 50 states. Given the lifetime costs of profound untreated hearing loss of nearly $1 million, a $18 million investment in screenings is surely worthwhile. Both the fiscal and health benefits of UNHS generated bipartisan support and, in 2017, the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention (EHDI) Act became law to sustain funding until 2022.

“We can’t imagine what it would have been like not to know,” Jason says. Ethan taught himself to read at three-and-a-half years old, which Jason and his wife believe is a direct result of Ethan’s access to sound and language at a very early age.

HHF implores policymakers to preserve newborn hearing screenings come 2022. The elimination of UNHS would be a tremendous disservice to our nation’s children with hearing loss. Learn more about how early intervention created positive health outcomes for Ethan and Alex in HHF’s short video (also shown above).

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How to Buy Hearing Aids

By Barbara Jenkins, Au.D., BCABA

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A friend’s mother needs hearing aids. She has a daughter in the hearing industry, she has insurance to cover hearing aids, she holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and she is still overwhelmed and confused by where to go, what the options are, and what is best for her.

Sound familiar? There is so much information—and disinformation—available about hearing aids that even some physicians are confused.

As with any big purchase, selecting a hearing aid can be difficult and confusing if you don’t have the right information or know the correct questions to ask. Bring a copy of this checklist with you on your next appointment, and feel confident in your decision to improve your life through better hearing.

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Hearing Healthcare Checklist

1. Where do I go for a hearing test?

Most hearing loss (up to 90 percent) is a result of non-medically treatable issues. But that means as many as one in 10 people will have a medical issue associated with their hearing loss. If this is your first hearing evaluation it would be prudent to see your primary care doctor first, then be referred to a specialist for a diagnostic audiogram (hearing evaluation).

Audiologists have a minimum of seven years of university training (master’s or doctorate level). Hearing instrument specialists can perform hearing tests but do not have the medical training to rule out medical issues—causes for hearing loss such as syndromes, Ménière’s disease, Usher Syndrome, sudden-onset, genetics, ototoxic drugs, etc.

If you know that there is no medically treatable issue associated with your hearing loss, either type of provider should be fine. If you’re in doubt, ask your physician which professional they recommend. They might refer you to an ENT (ear, nose, and throat specialist, or otolaryngologist).

2. Where do I buy my hearing aids?

Typically, once an audiologist or hearing instrument specialist has evaluated your hearing, you should be able to purchase your hearing aids from them. Requirements differ by state, but generally speaking the professional is trained in hearing aid selection, fitting, and care.

Make sure you are comfortable with the quality of care and the options offered by the provider. If only one brand of hearing aid is available, that’s a red flag. Be sure your provider offers a range of choices, in all styles and at all price points.

You can also opt to get a second opinion. This will give you additional provider choices, so you can go with the person with whom you feel most comfortable. After all, you will be starting a relationship that may last for years.

3. What style of hearing aid is best for me?

A hearing aid’s style (shape and configuration) is determined by the severity of hearing loss, manual dexterity and vision ability, comfort, and/or cosmetic appeal. Whether you get a larger, behind-the-ear hearing aid, or one that is nearly invisible in the ear canal, the cost is roughly the same. Discuss options with your provider and ask about the benefits and drawbacks to each type of device. Here is a brief overview of hearing aid styles, categorized from a larger size to smaller:

Behind-the-ear (BTE); receiver-in-canal (RIC) (also known as receiver-in-the-ear, RITE): These are currently the most popular due to durability, comfort, and cosmetic appeal. They may be a bit more difficult to put in the ears at first, but since less of the circuitry is inside the ear, they usually offer more natural sound. Also, RICs can be discreet, with only the speaker wire visible at the top of the outer ear.

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In-the-ear (ITE); in-the-canal (ITC): This category is among the best for ease of use. Just one piece goes into the ear, with a portion of the device visible outside the ear. Many people like ITEs because they are easy to insert into the ear, and the battery
life is better than that of their smaller, ITC cousins.

Completely-in-the-canal (CIC); invisible-in-the-canal (IIC): These typically fit deeper into the ear and are a very good choice for people who wear helmets or use stethoscopes. Since they are deep in the canal (making them less visible), the most common complaint is that they may not feel as comfortable as the BTE styles, and depending on usage you must change the batteries once or twice a week. (BTEs and RICs often use larger batteries for more power, and last longer.)

4. Which fidelity level is best for me?

Once you have chosen your preferred style of device, you must choose the fidelity (technology) level of the computer chip in the hearing aid. This is where the cost differences in hearing aids become apparent.

Most manufacturers have three levels of fidelity in their newest hearing aids as well as in their economy-priced models. The higher the level of technology, the better and faster the hearing aid can separate noise from speech. This means the speech and sound information passed to your brain is more accurate. Every level will help one-on-one conversations in quiet environments; the more advanced chips will boost clarity and noise reduction even more effectively. In most cases, get the best hearing aid you can afford, but don’t feel pressured into a decision. Take advantage of the 30- to 60-day trial period that is required in most states (in some cases paying a small fee to return the devices).

5. What other special functions do I need for better hearing?

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In the past few years, new features have emerged that have dramatically changed how we can interact with hearing aids.  

Rechargeable batteries: Rechargeable hearing aids are now available, requiring changing the battery only once every one to three years. These devices are recharged by placing the entire hearing aid unit on its charging dock. Not having to frequently manipulate the battery door is very helpful if you have vision or dexterity issues or if you tend to forget your batteries.

Almost waterproof hearing aids: There are now hearing aids that are so waterproof they actually dry themselves when they get wet. They are also dust- and shock-resistant. These are great for people who frequently spend time outdoors or who just perspire a lot. While it is not recommended swimming with them, these devices should survive taking a shower if you forget to take them out.

Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids: Many manufacturers now give you the ability to adjust your hearing aids with your smartphone, using Bluetooth wireless connectivity. You may even be able to stream sound directly to your hearing aids without the use of an additional device like a neck loop. If you’re tech-savvy, this may be for you.

Once you’ve gone through the items in this checklist, I hope you feel more confident about making decisions and improving your hearing.

Staff writer Barbara Jenkins, Au.D., BCABA, serves as Colorado’s professional state commissioner for people with hearing loss and was awarded the 2010 Leo Doerfler Award for Clinical Excellence by the Academy of Doctors of Audiology. Her office, Advanced Audiology, won the Most Humanitarian Hearing Care Office Award at the 2015 Signia Aspire Conference. For more, see advancedaudiology.com. This article also appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Hearing Health.

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HHF 2019 Grant Applications Open

By Lauren McGrath

We are excited to inform you that the applications for Hearing Health Foundation (HHF)'s 2019 Emerging Research Grants (ERG) and Ménière's Disease Grants (MRG) programs are officially open as of September 1.

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HHF's ERG grants provide seed money to stimulate data collection that leads to a continuing, independently fundable line of research. According to a 2017 analysis, every $1 of funding that HHF awards to ERG grantees is matched by the NIH with $91.

ERG grant funding shall not exceed $30,000 for the one-year project period, and only research proposals in the following topic will be considered for the 2019 ERG cycle: General Hearing Health (GHH)*,  [Central] Auditory Processing Disorders, Hearing Loss in Children, Hyperacusis, Ménière’s Disease, Ototoxic Medications, Tinnitus, and Usher Syndrome.

More Information About ERG
Begin Your ERG Application

The highly competitive Ménière’s Disease Grants (MDG) program funds scientists to better our understanding of this complicated condition with an eye for better treatments and cures for those who suffer from Ménière’s disease.

MDG grant funding shall not exceed $125,000 for the two-year project period. Areas of interest for the 2019 MDG Cycle include: the mechanisms of endolymphatic hydrops; genetics of Ménière’s disease; development and validation of biomarkers, including imaging and/or electrophysiologic and behavioral measures for its diagnosis and measurement of therapeutic effectiveness; animal models of Ménière’s disease; and the development of novel therapeutics.

More Information About MDG
Begin Your MDG Application

Applications for both ERG and MDG will close Tuesday, January 15.

If you have any questions about the grant program and processes, contact us at grants@hhf.org.  
Please forward and share this information with your colleagues who may be interested.

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The Inner Ear Circle

By Lauren McGrath

  Credit: Jane G. Photography

Credit: Jane G. Photography

Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) exists to better the lives of individuals with hearing and balance conditions through groundbreaking research.

Reliable research outcomes require time and stability. “Research is not effective when it happens in fits and starts. Consistency is necessary to find safe and effective ways to promote lasting advancements for hearing in humans,” explains HRP scientist Jennifer S. Stone, Ph.D.

Making a monthly contribution is a powerful way to ensure that research in the program of your choice—Hearing Restoration Project (HRP), Emerging Research Grants (ERG) or Ménière's Disease Grants (MDG)—can thrive. You can also designate your gift to the area of greatest need to help us reach our program goals.

When you start your monthly commitment to HHF, you will automatically become a member of our Inner Ear Circle, helping to ensure our researchers have the resources needed to sustain their work without interruption.

Additional benefits of the Inner Ear Circle include:

  • Reduced administrative efforts and cost
  • Financial security for your contribution
  • Environmental friendliness because we print fewer mailings
  • Special recognition in HHF’s Annual Report

To make your first gift as a member of the Inner Ear Circle, please visit www.hhf.org/monthly.

If you wish, you may commence your monthly commitment by phone—212.257.6140 (voice) or 888.435-6104 (TTY)—or by mailing a completed form to:

Hearing Health Foundation
363 Seventh Ave 10th Floor
New York, NY 10010

Please, if you are able, begin a monthly contribution to HHF’s life-changing research and awareness today. 100% of your donation will sustain critical programming. HHF has earned top ratings with all charity watchdogs, and made the Consumer Reports list of Top Five Charities for Your Donation, providing assurance your contribution will be well-invested.

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Thank you for your consideration and support.

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Understanding Individual Variances in Hearing Aid Outcomes in Quiet and Noisy Environments

By Elizabeth Crofts

  Evelyn Davies-Venn, Au.D., Ph.D.

Evelyn Davies-Venn, Au.D., Ph.D.

More than 460 million people worldwide live with some form of hearing loss. For most, hearing aids are the primary rehabilitation tool, yet there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As a result, many hearing aid users are frustrated by their listening experiences, especially understanding speech in noise.

Evelyn Davies-Venn, Au.D., Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota is currently focusing on two projects, one of which is funded by Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) through its Emerging Research Grants (ERG) program, that will enhance the customization of hearing aids. She presented the two projects at the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) convention in June.

Davies-Venn explains that some of the factors dictating individual variance in hearing aid listening outcomes in noisy environments include audibility, spectral resolution, and cognitive ability. Audibility changes—how much of the speech spectrum is available to the hearing aid user—is the biggest factor. “Speech must be audible before it is intelligible,” Davies-Venn says. Another primary factor is spectral resolution, or your ear’s ability to make use of the spectrum or frequency changes in sounds. This also directly affects listening outcomes.

Secondary factors include the user’s working memory and the volume of the amplified speech. These impact how well someone can handle making sense of distortions (from ambient noise as well as from signal processing) in an incoming speech signal. Working memory is needed to provide context in the event of missing speech fragments, for instance. Needless to say, it is a challenge for conventional hearing aid technology to address all of these complex variables.

Davies-Venn’s highlights two emerging projects that take an innovative approach to resolving this challenge. The first project aims to improve hearing aid success focuses on an emerging technology called the “cognitive control of a hearing aid,” or COCOHA. It is an improved hearing aid that will analyze multiple sounds, complete an acoustic scene analysis, and separate the sounds into individual streams, she says.

Then, based on the cognitive/electrophysiological recordings from the individual, the COCOHA will select the specific stream that the person is interested in listening to and amplify it—such as a particular speaker’s voice. The cognitive recording is captured with a noninvasive, far-field measure of electrical signals emitted from the brain in response to sound stimuli (similar to how an electroencephalogram, EEG, captures signals).

Davies-Venn’s ERG grant from HHF will support research on the use of electrophysiology, far-field or distant (i.e. recorded at the scalp) electrical signals from the brain, to design hearing aid algorithms that can control individual variances due to level-induced (i.e. high intensity) distortions from hearing aids.

The other project involves sensory substitution. This project explores the conversion of speech to another sense—for example, touch—through a mobile processing device or a “skin hearing aid.” For the device to function, a vibration is relayed to the brain for speech understanding. This technology seems cutting edge, but is believed to have been invented in the 1960s by Paul Bach-y-Rita, M.D., of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute of Visual Sciences in San Francisco. Even though it has not yet been incorporated into hearing aid technology intended for mass production, David Eagleman, Ph.D., of Stanford University and others are hoping to make this a reality.

Davies-Venn’s research motives are inspired by a personal connection to her work. “I have a conductive hearing loss myself,” she says. “I had persistent/chronic ear infections as a child that left me a bit delayed in developing speech, and still get ear infections as an adult and have ground accustomed to the low-frequency hearing loss that results until they resolve.” She also has family members with hearing loss and understands the importance of developing more advanced hearing assistance technology.

The projects are in the early stages, and it may take as long as a decade for them to reach the market from the concept. “The goal is to develop individualized hearing aid signal processing to improve treatment outcomes in noisy soundscapes,” Davies-Venn says. “We want to say, this is the most optimal treatment protocol, and it’s different from this person’s, even though you have the same hearing threshold.” Solving hearing aid variances in a precise, individual manner that accounts for variables such as age and cognitive ability will improve communication and quality of life for the millions with hearing loss who use hearing technology.

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The Miracle of the Cochlear Implant

By Barbara Sinclair

  Barbara and her husband, Charles, who also has a hearing loss, in 2004.

Barbara and her husband, Charles, who also has a hearing loss, in 2004.

My mother didn’t realize I couldn’t hear until one afternoon when I was about 3 years old. I was happily playing on the floor with my younger brother. Suddenly I glanced up and saw Tex looking at Mother, who had clapped her hands. Not hearing any noise, I didn’t respond. Frantic with worry, Mother called Daddy telling him I couldn’t hear. She then took me to the doctor. No wonder I was slow in talking! Sound meant nothing to me. I didn’t know that I needed to talk to express feelings.

A teacher trained at St. Louis’s Central Institute for the Deaf taught me how to speak and read lips at home in Cleveland. I never heard a sound until I got my first hearing aid around age 9. The earliest audiometric evaluation I still have is from 1984, when I was 55, and it showed a profound hearing loss in my right ear. My left ear was even worse, termed “dead.” With training in speaking and lip-reading (speech-reading), I stayed in a mainstream school with the help of a hearing aid, although I really depended on lip-reading to get by. The hearing aid gave me a sense of being able to communicate, but it didn’t help much when it came to understanding speech.

I imagine anyone born with a hearing loss doesn’t always understand why they can’t hear. Many times I had wondered this myself. My doctors are also unaware of the cause. I speak a little differently, with a metallic sound and slight accent, sometimes accenting the wrong spots as I speak. However, this did not impede school or, later, work. After I graduated from Arizona State University, I held jobs in bookkeeping, the library, and human resources.

Sounds such as shouting, banging, ringing, and clanging all sound the same to me. What does a ticking clock sound like? Tap-tap, or click-click? Or running water? To me, these sound the same. I can’t hear the wind rattling the window. I feel it. I can’t hear the fury of a rainstorm. I feel it.

It’s hard for me to detect changes in speech tones or pitch, or to tell a low voice from a higher one. I read that a child’s laughter is like the delightful rippling of a water stream. I can’t identify that sound. But even though I can’t enjoy music or follow group conversations, there are some advantages to not hearing—I sleep without any interfering noises.

In 2001, our audiologist mentioned cochlear implants to my husband Charles, then age 72, who also has a hearing loss as well as being blind from retinitis pigmentosa. I researched cochlear implants and found this description from ABC News. It dates from 2001 but is still accurate today: “For those with normal hearing, sound enters the ear, triggering hair cells in the cochlea, a spiral tube filled with fluid. Those excited hair cells send information to the hearing nerve, which sends signals to the brain, allowing us to hear.

“But, if deaf people have damaged hair cells in their cochlea, an implant can also do the same work. With an implant, sound is picked up by a tiny microphone connected by a cord to a small box outside the ear. The box turns sound into a signal—transmitting it through the skin, straight into the skull. Electronics in the skull send the signals straight to the hearing nerve, bypassing the cochlear hair cells that don’t work.”

We went to see Wesley Krueger, M.D., an otolaryngologist in San Antonio. After a series of tests, Dr. Krueger told Charles that his hearing wasn’t actually severe enough to be a candidate for an implant. He was stunned for a minute, and then asked the doctor if there was a possibility for me to get an implant. Then it was my turn to be stunned.

Weeks later, following my own series of tests, Dr. Krueger came into the room, grinning, and announced, “You are a candidate for a cochlear implant!” I was speechless as he showed me the components of “the bionic ear”: the external hearing aid-like processor and transmitter; the receiver under the skin that connects to electrodes; the magnet that holds the implant in place on the skull.

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I had the surgery a month later, when I was 72 years old. A week after the bandage from my right ear was removed, I felt dizzy, but there was almost no pain at all. I then realized that the implant made me unable to hear with my hearing aid. Whatever hearing I had was gone.

For 30 days I agonized whether I’d be able to hear. The incision behind the ear must heal for that period before the bionic ear can be activated. Then, finally, activation day came—and was successful! There were beeps and squawks, but I could hear! Relief enveloped me as I progressed through the programming of the device. Sounds were distorted and muddled, but they were all new to me.

It has been 17 years since the implant. My device has been reprogrammed again and again until clarity reached its peak. I still don’t understand speech perfectly, but I do hear sounds I had not heard before: a ticking clock, running water, a humming car motor—and yes, the laughter of our four grandchildren.

Barbara Sinclar lives in Texas. She is a Faces of Hearing Loss participant

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