Games created by Washington University researchers fight hearing loss –

Kathleen Willmann, 77, says she is a professional guesser.

Her hearing loss began as a child, and it has worsened as she’s gotten older. It’s never held her back, though. Willmann, of Florissant, completed her education and worked as a school librarian and a researcher for an accounting firm. She and her husband of 60 years never shied away from hosting family celebrations, traveling or antiques shopping with friends.

Willmann said she struggled in noisy restaurants and parties, and “doesn’t have a clue” what the youngest of her seven great-grandchildren are saying, but she doesn’t want to become a recluse.

“If I get an invitation, I go,” she said. “I refuse to avoid situations.”

All her life, Willmann has learned to cope and figure things out. Now a new computer software program developed by Washington University researchers aims to help her and the millions of others with hearing loss to no longer have to go it alone.

Looking beyond just treating hearing loss with hearing aids, the software uses a unique game-like approach that teaches the brain to better “listen” in challenging environments. Users can even play with the voice of a person they want to hear better, such as a spouse, teacher or child.

More than 35 million adults in the United States have meaningful hearing loss, meaning it impairs their ability to have conversations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a quarter of those over age 65 need a hearing aid.

Hearing loss can be devastating. It can be isolating and strain relationships with friends or co-workers.

“If you don’t treat hearing loss you are at higher risk of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression,” said Nancy Tye-Murray, Washington University professor of otolaryngology, audiology and communication sciences.

“It’s so wrong to just hand a hearing aid to someone and say, ‘Go on your way,’” Tye-Murray said.


Tye-Murray’s research team received about $8 million National Institutes of Health funding over the past nine years to test and develop the software. It is now available through a new company she launched with fellow research scientist Brent Spehar. The company is called clEAR — “customized learning: Exercises for Aural Rehabilitation.”

Because of its success, the team has been awarded $6 million for a five-year study to develop a similar program for hearing-impaired children. The study of nearly 150 children ages 6 to 11 from the Special School District and the Central Institute for the Deaf started last fall.

The software is designed to boost confidence and skills for conversing in noisy environments, one of the biggest complaints among people with hearing loss.

Because social events leave people feeling exhausted from trying to follow conversations, they tend to avoid gatherings. Hearing aids aren’t much help. They amplify not only the sounds you want to hear, but also the sounds you don’t. If hearing loss is due to nerve damage, hearing aids make words louder but not clearer.

Through games, the software exercises the cognitive skills — such as word memory, focus and speed — that are important for understanding speech. It’s like doing physical therapy after getting a hip replacement, Tye-Murray said.

“Words come quickly, and we must process them quickly,” she said. “Auditory training helps you adjust to new sounds faster and takes you to a new level of performance.”

Most auditory training is dull and drill-like, Tye-Murray said. An audiologist sits at a table, repeating practice words. The software uses games such as memory cards, spinning a slot machine and creating necklaces to make the exercises more fun. Players earn applause, coins or diamonds for correct answers.

“Hearing-impaired people experience failure all day long because of what they can’t hear,” she said. “I want them to be rewarded for what they can hear.”

The program focuses on the most frequently used words — the same 800 to 1,000 words we use over and over each day — and help to decipher ones that sound the same, such as “roll and bowl” or “can and can’t.” All the while, background noise is playing. Words are also used in sentences and stories to make learning more meaningful, Tye-Murray said.

Players can even train with the voices they want to hear the most. After recording a person, users can practice with his or her voice right away.

Researchers found the key to the program’s success was emotional support. Each person is paired with a hearing professional such as an audiologist, who serves as a coach, providing continual feedback.

“That contact and support is critical, because they think that no one cares or understands what they are going through,” Tye-Murray said.


Children with hearing loss face many of the same challenges, and the game-like approach could have an even bigger impact on the approximately 15 percent of school-age children who have measurable hearing loss.

The study with children involves placing the games on an iPad, which they can take home.

Kathleen Williams coordinates the Special School District program for hearing-impaired students in north St. Louis County, where 33 participated in the study this year. Williams said the iPads allowed them to play any time, not just at school.

“We know the more practice they get with these skills, the more they will progress,” she said. The games are also fun, so students are more motivated to practice.

“It’s hard being a student needing special services and being pulled out of class for something perceived as work,” Williams said. “For this, they are wanting to come out because it’s something they perceive as fun.”

Having hearing specialists come in as researchers to coach the students and measure their progress also has been important.

“They are working with students who come from a disadvantaged area and don’t have a lot of support in their lives,” Williams said. “I can tell you that those relationships that have developed are really beneficial to these kids.”

Elizabeth Mauze, an audiologist in Tye-Murray’s lab, said using the software is unlike anything she’s ever done in 26 years as an audiologist, especially when it comes to working with the children.

“It’s fun seeing kids with hearing loss playing the games,” Mauze said. “They are very proud of themselves. When they get something correct, it’s exciting for them.”

Tye-Murray said that was her goal: to help audiologists see they can help improve people’s lives by providing more than just hearing aids.

“It’s more than just games, it’s a hearing health care philosophy that I am promoting,” she said. “I’m trying to change the way my colleagues think about what it is they are doing every day.”


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