Lights out: How visual sensory deprivation could lead to improved hearing

Lights out: How visual sensory deprivation could lead to improved hearing

A new study finds sensory deprivation leads to improved hearing.

For superheroes like Daredevil, lack of sight doesn’t hinder his senses – it enhances them. Though this fictional character’s senses are highly exaggerated, the concept that deprivation of one sense can increase the efficiency of another is something researchers have been exploring for years.

A study published earlier this week in the journal Neuron, explains that mice who lived in complete darkness for one week showed heightened activity between neurons located in the part of the brain that processes sounds. While studies have been conducted to explore why people born blind have a heightened sense of hearing, research has not been able to conclude how this improved sense of hearing is achieved.

In an interview with LiveScience, Hey-Kyoung Lee, a neuroscientist at John Hopkins University and co-author of the study, said, “Once you put the animals in the dark for about a week, the neurons in the auditory part of the brain start processing sound better. They can respond to much softer and weaker sound, and have a better sense of pitch.”

Though the study was conducted on mice, the results suggest that the same process could occur in humans. And, if sensory deprivation does work in humans, not only does it help us better understand why people who are born blind have a heightened sense of hearing, but it could also lead to improved hearing in adults who have suffered from hearing loss.

Adults who have suffered from extreme hearing loss are often fitted with cochlear implants, an electronic hearing device that aids in ones ability to hear by translating sounds directly into signals that are then transmitted to the brain. Because adult brains are less adaptable than a childs, sometimes these devices lack efficiency in older people. Researchers hope that the findings of this study can be translated to humans and used to improve the hearing of those living with cochlear implants.

However, because sensory deprivation studies have not yet been conducted on humans, researchers say it’s too soon to determine whether or not sensory deprivation will be beneficial for adults living with extreme hearing loss.


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