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Is There a Connection Between Harsh Sounds and Brain Disturbance?

Do the screams of a siren or the shrill cry of a peacock send you into flight or fight mode? Does the sudden honk of a vehicle make you jump? If so, you are not alone. The effects of harsh sounds can seem intolerable to some people. In fact, this is the reason most alarms are so annoying.
Alarm manufacturers intentionally use tones with fast-paced, repetitious sounds that have the effect of putting us on alert. Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) as well as Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) in Switzerland have spent time researching the reactions that people have to a varied range of sounds.
With a goal of identifying the point that test subjects determined these frequencies to be objectionable, scientists explored the areas of the brain that reacted to different frequencies. By having them listen to sounds repeatedly from 0 to 250 Hz at intervals closer together each time, researchers at UNIGE asked participants to determine the point where the sounds went from several intermittent sounds to a solid, continuous one.
With the responses they got, the scientists found that at around 130 Hz participants heard only one continuous sound. This prompted the question of why the brain determines harsh sounds as obnoxious. Keeping that in mind, they requested that the test participants listen to different frequencies. They were instructed to categorize them from 1 to 5, with 1 being tolerable and 5 being obnoxious.
According to Luc Arnal, who is a researcher at the Department of Basic Neurosciences at UNIGE’s Faculty of Medicine, “The sounds considered intolerable were mainly between 40 and 80 Hz, i.e. in the range of frequencies used by alarms and human screams, including those of a baby. That’s why alarms use these rapid repetitive frequencies to maximize the chances that they are detected and gain our attention.”
Armed with this knowledge, neuroscientists worked to figure out why the brain reacts to these as sounds as intolerable. Pierre Mégevand, a neurologist and researcher in the Department of Basic Neurosciences in the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and at HUG reported, “We used an intracranial EEG, which records brain activity inside the brain itself in response to sounds.”
For sounds that are detected as one long continual sound, the intracranial EEG showed that there was activity in the auditory cortex, which is located in the upper temporal lobe. Mégevand stated, “This is the conventional circuit for hearing.”
The sounds that participants determined were intolerable (such as the ones they reported between 40 Hz and 80 Hz) resulted in a constant reaction that also involved a number of cortical and subcortical areas that are not normally involved in the traditional auditory system.
To this, Arnal responded, “These sounds solicit the amygdala, hippocampus, and insula in particular, all areas related to salience, aversion, and pain. This explains why participants experienced them as being unbearable.” He was reportedly surprised about the fact that these regions had something to do with sound processing.
Researchers were unable to find previous data that supported their findings that sounds between 40 Hz and 80 Hz had ever been determined to drive these same neural networks, though for many years these same frequencies have been used in various alarm systems.
According to Arnal, “We now understand at last why the brain can’t ignore these sounds,” says Arnal. “Something in particular happens at these frequencies, and there are also many illnesses that show atypical brain responses to sounds at 40 Hz. These include Alzheimer’s, autism and schizophrenia.”
Neuroscientists anticipate that further research into the topic will show why these areas are motivated by this specific range of frequencies. They hope to learn if early detection is possible for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, autism, and schizophrenia.
According to a study listed online at PMC US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health loud noises can bring about certain neuropsychiatric responses like the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Emotional stress
  • Psychiatric disorders

These can be responsible for changes to the hypothalamic pituitary axis (HPA) which is associated with how the body reacts to stress. Sudden, loud, harsh noises can create stress, which our body responds to almost instantaneously in the sympathetic nervous system. It begins the process of secreting epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are responsible for the changes you would normally experience when frightened or stressed such as an increase in heart rate and excess perspiration.
Within seconds the HPA axis is alerted and the hypothalamus reacts to signals such as raised norepinephrine levels. It then begins the secretion of corticotropin, a hormone released during the stress response. The pituitary gland responds by secreting adrenocorticotropic hormones which in turn triggers the release of cortisol.
Cortisol is known to increase the blood pressure as well as the cardiac output which provides more blood to your muscles in the event the stressor needs to result in physical exertion, such as running for your life.
When considering that the sound of sirens on emergency vehicles, tornado sirens, or even alarm clocks are designed to alert and potentially raise attention, it’s easier to understand why. When armed with this information, people can gain a better understanding of the reasons behind the discomfort and even fear that surrounds these loud and intolerable sounds.

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Should You Really Get Your Hearing Tested Annually?

As our day to day lives get busier and busier, it’s understandable that your health can sometimes take a back seat. Annual checkups are often last on our very long to-do lists but are more important than you may think. Incorporating annual checkups in your health regimen not only gives you control over your healthcare but can give you peace of mind when you receive a clean bill of health. Annual hearing tests are no different, and in fact, are equally as important to get checked on an annual basis. As studies show untreated hearing loss can result in irreversible damage to your hearing or health, getting an annual check-up is a perfect way to ensure you have done everything to prevent or spot indicators of hearing loss.

You’re Never Too Young to Start

There is a high chance that you have a person in their life affected by hearing loss, whether it is a loved one or even yourself. In fact, hearing loss is the most common chronic health condition in the United States, affecting people of all ages and walks of life. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), One in three people between the ages of 65 and 74 suffer from hearing loss, while a 2005 National Health Survey found that 5 out of every 1000 children are impacted.
As hearing loss is found in widely ranging age groups, it’s clear that annual hearing tests can be a proactive tool regardless of age, but is not the only reason you should include them in your healthcare regimen. Noise-induced hearing loss is increasing among younger generations as excessive exposure to loud volumes is becoming more common. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 50% of people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of hearing loss due to exposure to prolonged sound. Environments that younger populations are often exposed to such as nightclubs or concerts, and listening to music through a personal device, are all contributors to this risk, making it vital that even younger populations get an annual hearing test before irreversible damage has taken place. As Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General warns “They must understand that once they lose their hearing, it won’t come back.”

There Are Links Between Untreated Hearing Loss and Dementia

Without an annual hearing test, hearing loss can go undetected until it becomes a serious problem. As many do not seek treatment for an average of 10 years after experiencing signs of hearing loss, irreversible damage and accompanying health problems are common, such as dementia and depression. Due to a lack of auditory stimulation, cognitive decline can increase the likelihood of dementia as we age, compounding the importance of early detection before hearing loss has gone untreated for longer than it should.
Despite your age or condition, don’t skip your doctor’s appointment just yet. Including an annual hearing test in your healthcare regimen can help you detect hearing loss before it becomes a serious health issue.

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Alexa, How’s My Hearing?

Technology is quickly making itself a central place in our daily lives if it hasn’t already. While smartphones and wearable tech are now more a fact of life than a convenient accessory, voice-controlled home technology systems, such as Amazon’s Alexa are becoming more and more popular.
Alexa and other similar devices are easy and convenient ways to quickly listen to music, podcasts, and the news without ever having to leave your seat or pause what you’re doing. With a simple command, Alexa can play your favorite song or update you on the day’s breaking headlines.
But what if Alexa could also help test your hearing? Thanks to a new app on the Alexa platform, this just might be possible.
The App
The independent UK-based company, Amplify Hearing’s latest venture – the Hearing Screener – is an Amazon Alexa-based app that purports to be able to test your hearing in the comfort of your own home. Through a five-minute hearing test that includes spoken phrases and frequency tones, the Hearing Screener can identify signs of hearing loss, at which point it then recommends booking an appointment with a hearing healthcare professional.
The Hearing Screener’s simplicity and ease of use is its main selling point, as it requires little, if any real effort on the part of the individual. With just a few voice commands, anyone with an Amazon Alexa intelligent virtual assistant system can identify whether or not they might have hearing loss.
Since more than 100 million new Amazon Alexa devices have been sold so far this year alone, the Hearing Screener’s potential reach is huge, making it a prime candidate to revolutionize the world of hearing healthcare. According to Amplify Hearing, the screener has a high rate of accuracy, so it might be able to identify hearing loss in people who are unsure if they should seek out help.
All of this sounds great, of course, but is the Hearing Screener really all it’s cracked up to be?
A Replacement For Hearing Test Appointments?
Although taking a hearing test from the comfort of your own couch sounds pretty luxurious, many hearing healthcare professionals are skeptical about the Hearing Screener. While many hearing healthcare professionals don’t necessarily doubt the accuracy of the at-home Alexa-based hearing test, they do worry that people will use the test as a definitive resource for their hearing healthcare, preferring to take advice from the app rather than see a trained professional.
Since the test is so convenient, many hearing health professionals fear that people will choose not to undergo a professional assessment, thus leading to higher rates of untreated hearing loss. Thus, while the Hearing Screening is poised to help millions learn more about their hearing, it’s important to remember that it’s no substitute for a hearing test that’s administered by a hearing healthcare professional.
Rather, the Hearing Screening is yet another awesome smart technology-powered tool to help people better engage with their own hearing healthcare. As the app is still in its infancy, it will be exciting to see how its technology develops and how the test results factor into individuals’ decisions to see a professional. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one might have hearing loss, a consultation with a hearing healthcare professional can help get you started on your path to a healthier and happier hearing experience