What does your brain do when you hear a sound? The answer depends on your experiences. Research from Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Lab, led by Nina Kraus, suggests that many factors contribute to how the brain processes sounds. Kraus and her team developed a new way to measure brain activity in response to sound. Using this method, they discovered that multiple factors impact auditory processing. The findings could lead to interventions for a number of neurological and learning disorders.
To find out how “our life in sound changes the brain,” as Kraus puts it, the researchers conducted a series of studies involving participants from birth to age 90. The participants listened to music or sounds played directly into their ears. The researchers measured the amount of electricity created by the participant’s brain using sensors attached to the participant’s head.
The main finding of the research is that everything in a person’s life influences her ability to process sound. Playing music, learning a new language, language disorders, aging, and hearing loss can all affect auditory processing. Some of the team’s specific findings include:
- People who actively play music can hear better in noisy environments than those who do not play music.
- Poverty and mother’s education level affect a child’s ability to process sound.
- It is possible to predict a child’s future reading ability based on how well the pre-literate child processes pitch, timing, and timbre.
- Individuals can partially offset sound processing disadvantages by learning a new language or taking up music.
- Sound processing may act as a neurological marker for autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, and learning disabilities.
Nina Kraus explains that “making sense of sound is one of the most computationally complex tasks we ask our brains to do, because we process information in microseconds. It’s not surprising that one of the first problems we encounter with so many disorders—you get hit in the head, have a psychiatric problem or simply get older—is understanding sound in a complex environment … Sound processing in the brain really is a measure of brain health.”
Understanding auditory processing could offer a path to treating many disorders or be an early warning sign of other issues. By evaluating children for sound processing difficulties, it may be possible to determine who could most benefit from early interventions in literacy or other areas.
This research was presenting at the Falling Walls conference in Berlin.
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