Hearing loss and deafness afflicts approximately 15% of American adults, and over half of all geriatrics suffer some form of hearing loss. In many cases, loss in the ability to sense sound is modest, yet the person still struggles to make sense of what they are hearing, prompting the common complaint, “I can hear you fine, I just can’t understand what you are saying!”. This indicates that the central nervous system, especially the cerebral cortex, must engage attention and plasticity mechanisms to allow people to understand the meaning of sound, especially when they have hearing loss.
Several pressing questions that CNS researchers are actively pursuing:
- How do neurons in the cerebral cortex normally function that allows one to process complex sound signals such as speech?
- How does the cerebral cortex use attention to allow people to hear and understand sounds in noisy environments?
- What are the synaptic mechanisms of adaptive plasticity, i.e. how are particular synapses strengthened or weakened?
- What differences in nervous system processing occur during normal aging that can give rise to age-related hearing deficits, and how can they be minimized or eliminated?