Researchers test 'brain training' games to improve the lives of people with hearing loss

Researchers at The University of Nottingham are involved in a new study that will test whether using online gaming techniques could help people to cope with hearing loss and adapt to hearing aids, it was announced on World Hearing Day (3 March 2018).

The NIHR Nottingham Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) team, which includes clinicians, scientists, researchers and patients from the University of Nottingham; Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust (NUH); and Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (SFH), are about to start developing new online training packages, which use techniques taken directly from the world of brain training and computer games to improve listening and cognition for hearing aid users.

Although hearing aids substantially improve access to quiet sounds for people with hearing loss, hearing aid users often continue to face difficulties listening in background noise. Working with software developers Ounce Technology Ltd, the training ’games’ will be specifically designed with patients to help those with hearing loss listen well in challenging everyday situations such as noisy environments.

From 1 October 2018, people attending NUH and SFH Audiology departments to receive hearing aids for the first time will be invited to take part in the research.

Patients will be randomly assigned to either test one of two new online training games in addition to standard care, or to receive the existing support and advice from audiologists.

Those testing the games will be asked to go online on a regular basis over a four-week period, during which their experiences will be monitored.

Researchers are aiming to gain a better understanding of how practical it is for patients to use the games at home and the costs of providing this type of support on a larger scale.

This feasibility study comes on the back of a growing body of research, much of it led by audiologists and scientists in Nottingham, that computer-based auditory training provides benefits to listening and cognition for people with hearing loss. Using online techniques also has the benefit of being accessible to people in their own homes and communities, without the need for additional visits to hospitals or clinics.

Dr Helen Henshaw, Senior Research Fellow for the NIHR Nottingham BRC, is a Cognitive Psychologist leading the team who will carry out the study. Helen believes this study is an important part of improving quality of life for people with hearing loss, like Susan Bailey.

Day-to-day improvements

Susan is a hearing aid user and public member of the research team, who has previously taken part in an auditory training study in Nottingham. Susan says: “The games were easy to use and easy to understand with instructions provided by the research team. I looked forward to completing them each day. Before and after training I visited the research unit to complete hearing, listening, memory and attention tests. After training I felt I was performing much better at these tests. I also noticed improvements in my day-to-day communication with others. This experience will give me valuable insight for assessing the patient experience in this feasibility study.”

There are 11 million people in the UK with long-term hearing loss. Hearing loss isolates people, cutting them off from colleagues, family and social networks. Currently people with hearing loss often receive a hearing aid to improve access to quiet sounds, but little or no support to help them overcome the difficulties of listening in noise.

Previous research has shown that as well as the amplification provided by hearing aids, patients benefit from the development of speech and cognitive skills (memory and attention), which can work together to improve their listening abilities. The Nottingham feasibility study will test out the practicalities of using games specifically designed to stimulate speech understanding, memory and attention skills, and how these might best be provided by NHS audiology services to help people with hearing loss to overcome the impact of hearing loss on their quality of life.