While in Dr. Kraus’ lab, my colleagues and I used a commercially available program, Brain Fitness, to evaluate these effects (Anderson et al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013). The Brain Fitness program uses software technology to slow down rapid speech changes to a speed that is easy to hear for the participant. As performance improves, the speed is increased until the individual is hearing speech at normal to fast speeds. The auditory training is coupled with memory exercises, so that individuals are motivated to pay attention to the fine details of speech to help them remember what is said. The training is intense – one hour per day, five days a week for eight weeks. We evaluated our participants before and after training with a variety of measures including EEG responses to speech in noise.
We were quite excited about the results. We found that training reduced timing delays in the brain’s responses, especially to speech in noise, so that it partially reversed the aging effects we had earlier found when comparing EEG responses in younger and older adults. We also found that training improved behavioral measures of speech-in-noise perception, memory, and speed of processing. These results have given me hope that it is possible to at least partially reverse the effects of aging on our ability to hear in noise.
However, much more work is needed to determine optimal training strategies. Although the training was effective, perhaps the use of engaging stimuli, such as music, may enhance motivation to continue the training. My colleague in the Kraus Lab, Dr. Alexandra Parbery-Clark, has used EEG testing to document that older adults who have engaged in musical activities throughout their lifetimes have faster brain responses to speech than older adults who haven’t played music (Parbery-Clark et al., Neurobiology of Aging, 2012). Future work is needed to determine if music can be an effective training tool when music training is initiated in older adulthood.
With an ever increasing older population, there is growing interest in the hearing difficulties experienced by older people, and many researchers have taken diverse approaches to investigate these problems. As a faculty member in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland, I am excited to contribute to these efforts, and I look forward to the development of better assessment and treatment strategies for older adults experiencing communication difficulties.