Brain training games may help older adults with hearing loss

Hearing-impaired adults who play computer games designed to improve audio skills may have an easier time understanding conversations in a noisy room, a small experiment suggests.

Researchers asked 24 elderly adults who used hearing aids to spend 3.5 hours a week for eight weeks playing computer games. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to play games designed to help improve their ability to follow conversations, while the other half played games focused on memory that weren’t intended to help their hearing skills.

People playing memory games didn’t improve their ability to make out words during conversations. But participants in the other group did improve, correctly identifying 25 percent more words in spoken sentences after playing the games.

“The use of auditory perceptual training is fairly well established in training individuals to cope with tinnitus and to assist hearing impaired patients (especially the elderly) to hear and process speech more efficiently noisy situations,” said Dr Allen Senne, an audiologist at the House Ear Clinic in Los Angeles who wasn’t involved in the study.

“The training is based on the theory of neural plasticity and the ability to train or ‘remap’ the neural connections in the brain to deal with either tinnitus, or background noise,” Senne said by email.

For many people with hearing challenges, trying to follow a conversation in a crowded restaurant or other noisy venue is a major struggle, even with hearing aids.

Study participants were 70 years old on average and had been using hearing aids for around seven years.

All of the computer games they played required them to construct jigsaw puzzles using a touchscreen tablet.

People in the memory group had to use word recall to assemble the puzzles, while individuals in the other group had to rely on subtle changes in sounds to complete the puzzles.

Participants didn’t know which group they had been assigned to, and neither did researchers evaluating their listening comprehension skills after they played the games.

People in both groups improved on their respective auditory tasks and had comparable expectations for improved speech processing.

Among people who played the audio games, higher scores were associated with bigger gains in speech comprehension, the study found.

But the benefits didn’t last. Testing seven weeks after participants stopped playing the audio games revealed that their improved ability to understand spoken words in a noisy room had gone away.

Beyond its small size, other limitations of the study include a lack of data to show whether this type of computer game might benefit people in real life, lead author Jonathon Whitton of Harvard University in Boston and colleagues note in Current Biology.

Whitton did not respond to requests for comment.

Some participants also did worse after playing the games than they did before, and it’s unclear why this happened.

Even so, the idea of brain training games to aid people with hearing loss has long drawn interest from clinicians and there are a variety of commercially available programs that patients can try, noted Colleen Le Prell, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas who wasn’t involved in the study.

“There are no ‘back-to-back’ studies comparing outcomes with the different training programs, and the level of evidence for most training programs is generally rather limited,” Le Prell said by email. “However, given a number of studies potentially suggesting benefit of various training program, it is possible that an individual who is willing to make a commitment to regular training (defined by some as 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week, for at least one month) might obtain some benefit.”


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