March 2020 Australian Hearing Hub

It’s a building that embodies the collaborative spirit of Macquarie – researchers, educators, students, clinicians and industry innovators, all co-located and connected in a common goal to change lives for the better.  The Australian Hearing Hub – a pioneering collection of Australia’s leading hearing organisations – has been a distinctive sight on University Avenue since its opening in 2013.  Seven years on, we celebrate World Hearing Day on 3 March by stepping inside the Hub to see how co-location has turned into powerful and unified alliance improving the lives of people with hearing and language disorders around the world.

Our guide is Professor David McAlpine, ARC Laureate Fellow in the Department of Linguistics and the Hub’s Director of Hearing Research.

 Prof David McAlpineYOU ARRIVED AT MACQUARIE IN 2015, NOT TOO LONG AFTER THE OPENING OF THE HEARING HUB. HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THE HUB EVOLVE? 

There’s been a real maturing of how the partners see each other, and how we’re working together to change the dialogue on hearing health – it’s moved well beyond being just a common building with disparate organisations, to a real synergy. And we shouldn’t underestimate Macquarie’s role in driving that synergy. For example, The Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (RIDBC) and Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre (an RIDBC service) are now an integral part of Macquarie University – their education programs now run through us and they’re bringing their whole operation over from North Rocks to Macquarie campus.

HOW IS THIS STRENGTHENING OF PARTNERSHIPS HELPING US IN OUR MISSION TO TRANSFORM HEARING HEALTH?

Well, government investment in research is increasingly tied to impact and engagement, and no other university can boast our portfolio of partners. So, it means we can make a really strong case for investment in hearing, and we’ve been able to secure some important grants – like Professor Katherine Demuth’s grant last year to understand communication challenges of children with hearing loss, which we’re doing in collaboration with Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, The Shepherd Centre, Hearing Australia, Cochlear Limited and Parents of Deaf Children.

HOW HAVE THE DISCOVERIES COMING OUT OF THE HEARING HUB CHANGED HOW HEARING LOSS IS TREATED IN AUSTRALIA?

When it comes to hearing loss in children, we’ve moved significantly to early intervention and rehabilitation. All our partners are now heavily involved in early identification, implementation, rehabilitation, hearing technologies – all before the age of six months. Quite a few of the Hub partners have been collaborating on the LOCHI study, which shows that language abilities are strongly correlated with how early intervention occurred. We had a fantastic one-off chance to look at this when newborn hearing screening programs began rolling out at different times, in different Australian states. We had all these cohorts of the same age group, receiving intervention at different times. Our research coming out of the LOCHI study seems to strongly indicate that the age at which you got a hearing aid or a cochlear implant strongly influences your future language abilities and reading abilities; and probably your educational outcome and attainment.

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM – DEALING WITH HEARING LOSS IN AN AGEING POPULATION?

Ageing populations are living longer with hearing loss that’s irreversible. It’s our single biggest sensory deficit, so it means we’re going to have to change the story. We have to move away from hearing impairment in its traditional sense of not being able to hear quiet sounds in quiet rooms, to a more functional definition – asking ourselves what hearing loss means to our day-to-day life.

It’s something that most countries don’t seem be prepared for, or willing to tackle. Professor Cath McMahon is carrying out an interesting study, together with international partners, looking at the different models for hearing healthcare around the world.  None of them are solving the adult hearing loss issue, or the mild to moderate hearing impairment issues.

The stigma around hearing loss – especially around wearing hearing aids, which are associated with looking old – stops many people from investigating their hearing health. And of course, those who do actually get hearing aids often end up chucking them in a drawer.  Because hearing aids don’t actually solve the problem. We can solve the audibility problem by cranking up the sound, but it doesn’t make it any clearer to hear. Because you hear with your ears, but you listen with your brain. What’s feeding through from our ears to our brains is actually the issue we have to address.

SO, THE HUB IS ABOUT BRAINS AS MUCH AS EARS?

Definitely, and it’s one of the reasons why this building – with all these partners and departments working together – is making such a big impact. We’ve got colleagues from Cognitive Science, for example, helping us use infrared spectography – shining light into the head from outside – to measure the brain’s response to sound.  One of our PhD students, Amanda Fullerton, is using this technology with cochlear implant users, who we can’t use MRIs with. And we’ve just started a world-first clinical trial to use gene therapy to augment cochlear implants – stimulating neurons to push them closer to the electrodes that will give the user better resolution.  It’s super cool stuff.

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