Changes in the Brain that Occur with Hearing Loss

Age-related hearing loss occurs for just about everyone.  We wondered about the potential impact of hearing loss on brain structure because speech recognition can be difficult even after correcting for poor hearing thresholds.  In a sample of 49 older adults, we observed that high frequency hearing loss was associated with lower gray matter volume in auditory cortex.  Importantly, Dr. Kelly Harris from our Hearing Research Program has observed that individual differences in auditory cortex structure relates to individual differences in hearing thresholds even before hearing loss is considered clinically significant. These findings emphasize the importance of protecting your hearing and suggest that starting to wear hearing aids as early as possible may limit potential changes in brain structure.

But what about low frequency hearing?  In a follow-up study of 72 older adults, we tested a long-standing hypothesis that low frequency hearing loss occurs with vascular disease affecting vessels supporting the cochlea and the brain.  We examined the extent to which evidence for small vessel disease in the white matter of the brain was associated with low frequency hearing thresholds in older adults.  Variation in frontal white matter was related to low frequency hearing variation in women and people with a history of high blood pressure.  These results suggest that people with high blood pressure are at risk for low frequency hearing loss.  Future studies are necessary to determine if these findings can be explained by how well high blood pressure is controlled and/or the duration of high blood pressure before people seek treatment, for example.

Missingness in fMRI Studies: Multiple Imputation

Limited imaging coverage of the brain and susceptibility artifact contributes to missing data in functional imaging studies.  Multiple imputation is one solution for dealing with missing data.  We demonstrate in a recent Neuroimage manuscript the considerable benefit of using multiple imputation in functional imaging studies. There was a 35% increase in the number of voxels that were analyzed in a group study when multiple imputation was used to “fill in” missing data.  This approach will help to reduce the number of false negative results, increase power, and increase the validity of whole brain studies, particularly those involving large open access databases and ultra high-field imaging.

Visual System Activity When Listening to Speech: Distracting or Helpful?

Aging is often associated with increased distractibility that may arise from a failure to adequately suppress the processing of irrelevant sensory information. In our recent Cerebral Cortex paper, we show that decreasing word intelligibility was associated with increasing visual cortex activity in younger, middle-aged, and older adults. In addition, age was related visual cortex activity: while younger adults suppressed visual cortex activity during listening, aging was associated with reduced suppression and increasing visual cortex activity. Our findings guide the prediction that both age and listening difficulty impact the likelihood that irrelevant sensory information will be distractible.Alternatively, this change could reflect the engagement of multi-sensory representations to help identify speech in difficult listening conditions.

Our Recent Frontiers Review Manuscript on the Aging Brain and Cognition

Older adults experience slowed processing speed and the severity of slowed processing speed is a strong predictor of age-related cognitive decline and independence.  In our recent manuscript in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience we review the structural changes observed in brains of older adults that occur with slowed processing speed.  The most consistently observed structural changes occur in frontal brain regions that are susceptible to micro-vascular disease and cerebellar regions that together appear to constitute declines in neural systems important for coordinating and adapting behavior.  Frontal/cerebellar systems may therefore be targets for understanding the efficacy of interventions designed to enhance healthy aging.