The Surprising Effect of Loud Noise on the Brain

Last update on Mar, 20, 2018

Scientists have discovered that when hearing is damaged by prolonged exposure to loud noise, the brain may also experience the effects. Noise-induced hearing loss not only affects hearing, but it could also affect the brain’s ability to recognize speech.

An estimated 26 million Americans, or one in four adults, between the ages of 20 and 69 have hearing loss from excessive noise exposure. A study by the University of Texas at Dallas explored the effects of noise-induced hearing loss on the brain's ability to recognize speech sounds.

The laboratory study exposed two groups of rats to loud noise for an hour. One group experienced 115 decibels of extremely loud noise, which is close to the level of a jackhammer. The other group experienced 124 decibels of damaging noise, which is about the sound level of a siren. The first group ended up with moderate hearing loss, while the second group had severe hearing loss.

A month later, researchers measured the neuronal responses in the auditory cortexes of the rats' brains, which is where most sound processing happens. In the second group with severe hearing loss, the neurons reacted to speech more slowly than they did previously. They also couldn't tell speech sounds apart when presented with a familiar task.

Researchers believe that ears are just the first step to many processing stages that are needed to understand speech. Scientists are only beginning to understand how noise-induced hearing loss alters the brain and makes it difficult to process speech. More research is being explored to understand how hearing loss changes your brain. 

How does noise-induced hearing loss happen?

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs from exposure to high levels of noise that happen in one, quick burst or over time. Like the study, prolonged exposure to noises at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound and higher the decibel, the shorter the time it takes for noise-induced hearing loss to happen.

Noise-induced hearing loss occurs from exposure to high levels of noise that happen in one, quick burst or over time. Like the study, prolonged exposure to noises at or above 85 decibels can cause hearing loss. The louder the sound and higher the decibel, the shorter the time it takes for noise-induced hearing loss to happen. These dangerous sound levels can damage the delicate hairs of the inner ear, which act as sound receivers. That causes permanent hearing loss. There's no cure for noise-induced hearing loss and it can't be reversed. Once those hairs in the inner ear have been damaged by noise, they can't be restored, although researchers are experimenting with new ways to grow those hair cells in the future. In the meantime, the best way to treat hearing loss and limit its effect on the brain is to use hearing aids. 95% of hearing loss can be treated with hearing aids. But the best way to avoid noise-induced hearing loss is prevention.

How can I prevent hearing loss?

The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss is one of the easiest health issues to prevent. It's the only type of hearing loss that's 100% preventable. Here are five ways to practice prevention and good hearing health...

1. Walk away from the noise

Add some distance between you and the source of the sound, around 25 feet. Or limit exposure by leaving the space.

2. Turn down the volume

Someone standing within an arm's length of you should not be able to hear what's playing in your earbuds. You should still be able to hear what's going on around you while wearing earbuds.

3. Wear ear protection

Keep extra earplugs around as part of your emergency kit for concerts, sporting   events and yard work. Consider getting the youngest members of your family earmuffs designed for kids. There are even earmuffs designed for four-legged family members.

4. Educate yourself and young children

Understand the dangers, model positive behaviors and inform kids about hearing protection. Here are common sounds that can cause hearing loss. The National           Institutes of Health offer great hearing protection information for parents, teachers and kids in English and Spanish. 

Get your hearing checked

It's important to treat hearing loss early, before it affects the brain. If you're over 50, you should get your hearing tested  every three years. If you're under 50 and not experiencing any issues, you should get your hearing checked about every ten years. If you're experiencing problems or are engaged in a high-risk activity or job, get checked soon. Here's an easy way to set up a hearing screening today.

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