July 2017 MedCity News

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on neural interfaces since 1974, when agency-funded scientists used encephalogram signals to help participants move cursors around a maze. Now, through its Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, the agency is sponsoring research into a new generation of technologies that could better enable communication between devices and the brain. 

Neural interfacing“NESD is pursuing technologies that could someday serve as foundations for future treatments for sensory deficits, such as blindness and deafness,” said Justin Sanchez, who directs DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office. “We envision these systems as neural prostheses, helping the brain to overcome the effects of injury and disease…We expect that the program will also give researchers deeper insights into how the brain processes sensory inputs, and that knowledge could inform a range of future neuroscience efforts.”

First announced in 2016, NESD seeks to translate neurochemical signals into binary code. To achieve this, the agency has awarded contracts to teams at Brown, Columbia, UC Berkeley, Fondation Voir et Entendre (The Seeing and Hearing Foundation) Paradromics and the John B. Pierce Laboratory.

“Our goal with NESD is to communicate with up to one million neurons in the brain, up from the current limit of tens of thousands at a time,” said Sanchez. “We believe that doing so will enable therapeutic applications that offer the user far richer experiences than what has already been demonstrated by technologies such as cochlear implants to treat hearing loss. We also need to shrink the packaging of neural interfaces, overcoming technical hurdles related to biocompatibility and long-term implant..”

The contracted institutions have proposed some bold approaches to access those million neurons. The Brown team seeks to implant 100,000 salt grain-sized sensors in the cerebral cortex to understand speech processing. Researchers at Columbia will use semiconductors placed over the cortex to study vision. Berkeley scientists will develop a miniaturised microscope to interrogate neurons and measure how they respond to visual and tactile stimulation.

“The eyes take in an enormous amount of information every second as photons, and the brain rapidly, and very efficiently, encodes that information as electrochemical signals that we understand as images,” said Sanchez. “For researchers to begin to replicate that process, albeit at much lower scales, they need to figure out how the brain encodes optical inputs and begin to link specific neuronal firing patterns to specific stimuli, making it possible for a machine to read out what the brain is processing.” Ultimately, DARPA sees these projects as another step towards devices that interact directly with the brain – technologies that could ultimately help civilians and service people facing debilitating injuries. “DARPA’s primary constituents are the military services and service members,” said Sanchez. “The brain is involved in every aspect of how military personnel learn complex tasks and manage stressful situations, and it can be subject to extraordinary injury during service to our country. It is the agency’s duty to develop breakthrough technologies to protect service members from harm and, when necessary, help them recover from adverse events.”

July 2017 Heathy Hearing

Here’s some good news for all the shower crooners and car radio rock stars out there -- in addition to reducing stress and increasing mental alertness, your hobby may also benefit your hearing. Specifically, it might improve the way you understand conversations which take place in noisy places. That’s the preliminary finding of a study conducted by Frank Russo, professor of psychology and director of the Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology (SMART) Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto. Professor Russo and his SMART Lab colleagues study music’s effect on the brain. They are also interested in how aging affects hearing. Their research made them wonder -- why do older adults have trouble understanding speech in noisy environments?

“When people are matched for audiometry and age, musicians seem to have superior ability to distinguish speech in noise.” Professor Russo said. “It’s possible that musicians have innate abilities but it might also be because of their training. Our working hypothesis is that singing would develop fine-grained pitch perception, which would in turn support speech perception in noise. It seemed to my group that we really needed an experiment.”

ChoirChoir getting pitch-perfect

To test their hypothesis, Professor Russo and graduate student Ella Dubinsky reached out to some of the older adults with hearing loss in Russo's database and asked them if they wanted to join a choir-- no musical experience needed. Participants signed on for a 10-week session which included vocal lessons, choir practice, computer homework, and, just for fun -- a performance at the end of their training. The first group was organised in 2014, the most recent concluded their voice training the first week of July, 2017. In addition, the researchers established two other control groups. One simply listened to music while the other had no musical intervention at all. Periodically, researchers used scalp electrodes to track the auditory brainstem responses of participants in all three groups. Professor Russo said this allowed his team to measure how well the brain was coding sound, especially how it responded to specific speech patterns such as the steady portion of speech corresponding to vowels.

The result? The studies determined that the choir group’s brainstem response to sound improved after singing training. The other two groups showed no improvement. 

“One of the advantages musicians have is that they can follow the pitch contour of voice,” Russo said, as he explained why the researchers decided to use voice training to test their hypothesis. “Voice is an instrument with variable pitch. When you’re matching a pitch, you have to have very fine pitch perception to match it perfectly. Not many instruments allow for this. String instruments are the exception; however, it would take us years to train an older adult to play a violin. Singing is something you can pick up relatively easy in older age.” Besides, most people have some experience singing, even if it’s just in elementary school music class. And, Russo said, chances are good everyone can sing -- even those who may have been told otherwise along the way.

“In my own work and my colleagues' work, 96-97 percent of us can sing fairly well, meaning that we’re reasonably close to the pitch we’re trying to match,” he said. “We might have a horrible sounding voice and our timing might be bad, but most of us can match a pitch -- and with practice we can improve how well we match that pitch.”

Professor Russo said the number one complaint from older adults is that they have trouble hearing speech in noise. And while hearing aid technology has come a long way, they don’t completely address the problem. In the future, Russo and his SMART Lab colleagues hope to expand the study to include individuals who wear hearing aids. They’re also interested in studying how long the benefits last and exactly why this activity improves speech in noise comprehension.

“Participating in a group activity (like singing in a choir) provides cognitive and social benefits,” he said. “Those kinds of gains might be contributing factors. It would be useful to tease these things apart and do studies to determine what is driving the gains in speech in noise. Right now we just know something good happens in the brain. Even if it does require people to do it into old age, singing is an intervention that will fit very nicely into their lifestyle. There are also various ways to improve your singing without joining a choir. Download an app for your smartphone. Sing in the shower. I think those things are likely helpful.”

There are also ways to improve your hearing even before you sign up for that community choir. The first step is to have your hearing tested by a qualified hearing care professional like one of those listed in our extensive directory. Hearing aid technology is available today to help you hear all the sounds of life, including your favourite music.

July 2017 Vox

Dementia has long been thought of as an inevitable part of aging, but researchers are increasingly learning that’s not quite true. About a third of dementia cases might actually be avoided by living a lifestyle that better protects your brain. Dementia is how we describe symptoms that impact memory and lead to a decline in cognitive performance, often in ways that disrupt daily living. There are different brain disorders that cause dementia, but Alzheimer's is the most common, followed by cerebrovascular disease and Lewy bodies disease. Around the world, some 47 million people are currently living with dementia. The burden of Alzheimer’s alone on families and the health system is difficult to overstate: It’s the most expensive disease in America, costing up to $215 billion per year (more than double that of cancer or heart disease), and it can take a terrible toll on patient’s loved ones. The number of people with dementia is also expected to triple worldwide by 2050 as populations age.

But there’s some good news: You might be able to modify some of your risk of developing dementia. A recent Lancet report, by 24 leading dementia researchers from around the world, zeroed in on nine of the best-known lifestyle factors that contribute to the illness and account for more than a third of dementia cases. The takeaway: Addressing these factors might be able to cut our dementia risk by up to 35 percent.

brain scan

9 behavioursThis list of nine contributors is only the beginning. The scientific community is already learning about other potential contributors to dementia, such as exposure to pollution and lack of sleep.

“So we don’t think this [list of nine things] is everything but this is what we have evidence on now,” said Livingston. There are other caveats to note about this research. Some of the factors — such as hearing loss, or social isolation — are again associated with dementia, but whether they cause dementia isn’t yet clear, and researchers are working to better understand dementia’s causes.

What’s more, not all cases of dementia are preventable; about 7 percent are linked with genetics and can’t be modified with lifestyle changes. And, the researchers wrote, “age, the greatest risk factor for dementia overall, is unmodifiable.”

Even so, Livingston added, people should think about finding ways to cut their dementia risk, and policymakers should think about creating environments that promote health. For example, some communities aren’t walkable, or lack strong tobacco control policies. Making exercise more accessible, and helping people quit their smoking habit, could reduce the dementia burden. Considering what a costly and devastating problem dementia is, we can’t wait for better evidence. And, it seems, even small steps toward living a healthier and more active lifestyle not only boost your overall health, but the health of your brain, too.

Aug 2017 Crossoads Today

'Hearing Implants and Biomaterials: Market Shares, Strategy, and Forecasts, Worldwide 2017 to 2023' has 162 pages, 88 tables and figures. These markets are poised to achieve significant growth with increasing use of next generation metals, polymers, and ceramics set to enhance the value of hearing surgery and improve surgical outcomes. By improving hearing of people with profound hearing deficits. Improvements is hearing for severely deaf infants, children and adults particularly old people are dramatic. Small implant, great results is the norm. The best results were found among children who received the cochlear implant at 0-3 years of age. They achieved 90 to 95 percent hearing and language improvement. 80-90 percent of these children develop a hearing and speech equal to those of children with normal hearing. The cochlear implant has become widely recognised as an established treatment for profound hearing loss. This bodes well for market growth, as there is minimal, less than one percent market penetration now. New materials and greater surgeon experience are expected to reduce the cost of the implant, both the device and the procedure. Economies of scale always decrease costs and increase market size. The trend likely to continue is for Cochlear implants as medical devices to continue to be used more often. The worldwide market for Hearing Implants and associated biomaterials is $1.8 billion in 2017, anticipated to reach $5.8 billion by 2023. The complete report provides a comprehensive analysis of hearing implants in different categories, illustrating the diversity of uses for devices in auditory surgery by age group.