Archive for August, 2017

Details of cognitive hearing aids and battery in closeup.

Cognitive Hearing Aids: Understanding Speech Better

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Details of cognitive hearing aids and battery in closeup.

The cognitive hearing aids can change how people hear.

Cognitive issues usually accompany hearing loss. That’s because hearing impairment makes it difficult for some to understand what others are saying. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to hold a conversation. During moments where a person with hearing loss is in a crowded or noisy place, understanding speech becomes an increasingly taxing. In order to solve this issue, scientists are developing cognitive hearing aids. The hope is that these devices can filter background noise and enhance voice recognition to make it easier for people to understand speech.

How Hearing Aids Work

Hearing aids are the primary medical devices used to improve hearing. They are used by people who have hearing damage or have developed hearing loss at some point in their lives. Around 48 million Americans report having hearing loss. Unfortunately, only 20 percent of these people actually use hearing aids.

While these devices cannot fully correct hearing loss, they make is easier to understand and process sound. Some hearing aids can cancel noise and the wind, enhance your spatial region, and highlight voice. These devices still have a long way to go. While some hearing aids are capable of suppressing background noise, they have trouble focusing on the speech of a specific person.

Working on Cognitive Hearing Aids

The goal of creating cognitive hearing aids is to focus on hearing one speaker over voices of many others. Hearing aids that can focus on a singular person can make it easier to understand someone in a crowded place. The cognitive hearing aids would have to connect to the brain to understand where to focus. They would also be quite the achievement.

At the Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science, researchers came together to determine how they can achieve this kind of auditory focus with hearing aids. The scientists looked at deep neural network models, which helped them separate multiple voices and determine which one the brain is focusing on. The speaker is then amplified so the user can hear them better. Ultimately, this improves auditory attention decoding (AAD).

“This work combines the state-of-the-art from two disciplines: speech engineering and auditory attention decoding,” says Nima Mesgarani, associate professor of electrical engineering and lead of the study. “We were able to develop this system once we made the breakthrough in using deep neural network models to separate speech.”

Previous studies helped the research team develop this new method. “Translating these findings to real-world applications poses many challenges,” notes James O’Sullivan, a postdoctoral research scientist working with Mesgarani and lead author of the study.

“Our study takes a significant step towards automatically separating an attended speaker from the mixture,” O’Sullivan continues. “To do so, we built deep neural network models that can automatically separate specific speakers from a mixture. We then compare each of these separated speakers with the neural signals to determine which voice the subject is listening to, and then amplify that specific voice for the listener.”

Final Thoughts on the Study

“Our system demonstrates a significant improvement in both subjective and objective speech quality measures — almost all of our subjects said they wanted to continue to use it,” Mesgarani says. “Our novel framework for AAD bridges the gap between the most recent advancements in speech processing technologies and speech prosthesis research and moves us closer to the development of realistic hearing aid devices that can automatically and dynamically track a user’s direction of attention and amplify an attended speaker.”

Hopefully, the cognitive hearing aids will convince those with hearing loss to use these devices. Hearing impairment can occur around the age of 65 years old. Using these devices can significantly improve their quality of life.

Closeup of a young man in bed looking at the smartphone at night, which affects sleep quality.

Digital Technology and Sleep Quality: Keeping You Awake

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Closeup of a young man in bed looking at the smartphone at night, which affects sleep quality.

Don’t sacrifice sleep quality while using your phone.

It’s not just New York City that never sleeps anymore. With the rise of smartphones and digital devices, it seems the whole world is up 24/7. As a society, we seem to be addicted to the always connected nature of digital technology. But what effect does this behavior have on our sleep? It turns out that using technology right before we go to bed is contributing to the high prevalence of reported sleep dysfunction and poor sleep quality.

A Story All Too Familiar

What’s the last thing you remember doing before you went to bed? There’s a good chance you were up all night, lying in bed, scrolling through your social media feed with the lights off. Sometimes we are a slave to our phones and tablet. Analytics firm Flurry confirms that we spend almost 5 hours a day on our mobile devices. This is a significant increase from the amount of time we spent on our devices a couple of years ago.

Sleep-Wake Cycles and Sleep Quality

The evolution of how we consume media is beginning to show drastic consequences. Researchers at the University of Houston looked into the effect of artificial light generated from smartphones, tablets, and televisions. What they found is that this ‘blue light’ contributes to poor sleep quality and the development of sleep dysfunctions.

Over a period of two weeks, researchers had several participants, ages 17-42, wear short wavelength-blocking glasses for three hours before bedtime. During that time, the subjects were allowed to continue their daily routine as they normally would. Researchers found a 58 percent increase in their night time melatonin levels.

Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by the brain. It helps control when we go to sleep and when we wake. Melatonin is heavily influenced by the amount of light we are exposed to. When the sun goes down, melatonin goes up. As the sun rises, the level of melatonin produced our brain decreases. This process controls our natural sleep-wake cycle.

“By using blue blocking glasses, we are decreasing input to the photoreceptors, so we can improve sleep and still continue to use our devices. That’s nice because we can still be productive at night,” Ostrin said.

Too Much Artificial Light Works Against Us

The blue light generated by our phones and devices is similar to the light from the sun. So, as we are using our phones or watching television before we sleep, our melatonin levels decrease. Our sleep-wake cycle is completely thrown off.

Exposure to sunlight, or blue light, activates intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). This neuron is found in the retina and suppresses melatonin. Instead of preparing to rest, our body is alert and awake.

“The most important takeaway is that blue light at night time really does decrease sleep quality. Sleep is very important for the regeneration of many functions in our body,” says Dr. Ostrin.

What You Can Do at Home

While some of us feel like we can’t live without our phones, it’s important to spend some time away from them. You’ll find that your ability to fall asleep faster, sleep better, and sleep longer increases dramatically. There are some other methods you can apply if still want to use your phone at night.

Most phones have a neat little feature call night time mode. This decreases the amount of blue light your device produces. You can also apply screen filters that block blue light or use glasses with anti-reflective lenses.

Either way, you should find a way sleep better. Sleep deprivation can lead to a series of fatal diseases. Disorders like sleep apnea can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and more. Take control of your sleep health early in order to stay happy and healthy.

Man is snoring in bed due to sleep apnea, which is suspected to lower life expectancy.

How Does Sleep Apnea Affect Your Life Expectancy?

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Man is snoring in bed due to sleep apnea, which is suspected to lower life expectancy.

Can sleep apnea put your life expectancy in jeopardy?

The average life expectancy is 78.8 years, according to the CDC. The advancement of modern medicine and technology has made living this long possible. However, bad habits and diseases continue to fight against the progress we have made. That’s why it’s important to know what diseases and conditions lower your life expectancy.

Even conditions that prove to be a minor inconvenience can have a long-term impact on your health. Sleep apnea, for instance, is a troublesome condition that is often overlooked. Now, scientists are concerned that disorder’s influence on your quality of life can also affect how long you live. (more…)

Several women sitting at the doctor's office. Some have restless leg syndrome.

Restless Leg Syndrome an Indicator for Poor Sleep

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Several women sitting at the doctor's office. Some have restless leg syndrome.

Pregnancy and restless leg syndrome is more common than you think.

You’ve probably heard of restless leg syndrome (RLS) before. It’s a condition where you feel an uncontrollable need to move your leg. This can be due to unpleasantness or even a feeling of being uncomfortable. While this disorder can seem like a minor inconvenience, it can have impactful consequences. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even classifies restless leg syndrome as an essential sleeping disorder.

Why Is Restless Leg Syndrome Classified as a Key Sleeping Disorder?

The symptoms of RLS can infer with sleep. The uncontrollable urge to move your legs can manifest from feelings of itchiness, pain, or discomfort. According to the CDC:

“This [RLS] often causes difficulty initiating sleep and is relieved by movement of the leg, such as walking or kicking. Abnormalities in the neurotransmitter dopamine have often been associated with RLS. Healthcare providers often combine a medication to help correct the underlying dopamine abnormality along with a medicine to promote sleep continuity in the treatment of RLS.”

There are several factors that lead to RLS, including:

  • Iron Deficiency
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Kidney Failure
  • Diabetes
  • Peripheral Neuropathy
  • Medications
  • Pregnancy

Recently, a study even looked into the link between RLS and pregnant women to find out the effect it has on one’s quality of sleep. The researchers discovered that the disorder is strongly associated with poor sleep quality, excessive daytime sleepiness, and poor daytime function in pregnant women.

RLS and Pregnant Women

It’s common for women in their third trimester to have restless sleep syndrome with moderate to severe symptoms. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found this to be the case with 36 percent of pregnant women. These women were also twice as likely to experience symptoms of sleep-wake disturbances and daytime sleepiness.

“While we expected that RLS would be relatively common in pregnant women, we were surprised to observe just how many had a severe form,” said lead author Galit Levi Dunietz, Ph.D., a T32 post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan Sleep Disorders Center in Ann Arbor. “These women experienced RLS symptoms at least four times per week.”

The study looked at 1,563 pregnant women with an average age of 30 years, all in their third trimester. The researchers monitored their symptoms and gave them a sleep questionnaire to determine their status. Thankfully, they also determined that RLS had no adverse effect on the delivery process. However, researchers are afraid that doctors and other health care providers will dismiss sleep symptoms simply because women are pregnant.

“These sleep-wake disturbances are considered common symptoms in pregnancy and are frequently attributed to physiological changes that occur in normal pregnancy, but our data suggest that RLS is an additional contributor to these symptoms,” said Dunietz.

RLS usually goes away once pregnancy is over. The problem is dealing with the disorder during pregnancy. Some suggest that lifestyle changes, decreasing the use of caffeine, and regular exercise might help. Other methods for treating restless leg syndrome include leg massages, good sleeping habits, and hot baths. If you feel you have restless leg syndrome, talk to an otolaryngologist today.

Baby with the potential for hearing loss lying in bed.

Early Intervention Proves Positive for Babies With Hearing Loss

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Baby with the potential for hearing loss lying in bed.

Early intervention can prevent difficulties with hearing loss.

Unfortunately, there are many cases of infants with significant hearing loss. This loss of sound can occur at birth. Other times, hearing loss in infants develop slowly, becoming worse over time. It can be hard to pinpoint the cause of damage to the middle and outer ear. A loss of sound may occur due to birth defects, a buildup of fluid and ear wax, or because of a rupture to the eardrum. Researchers at the University of Colorado made a recent discovery, showing that early intervention of hearing loss can help your child later in life.

Early Intervention for Hearing Loss

Lead author Christine Yoshinaga-Itano is an audiologist and research professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Yoshinaga-Itano’s team worked to assess the impact of Early Hearing Detection Intervention (EHDI) 1-3-6 guidelines. The Joint Committee on Infant Hearing developed these guidelines 17 years ago. These guidelines suggest that the following steps should be taken:

  1. All newborns should be screened for hearing loss within the first month.
  2. If the test is positive for hearing loss, parents should see a specialist within three months for an evaluated.
  3. Within six months, parents should start early interventions based on their child’s diagnosis.

About 96% of U.S. infants undergo the screening process. For one reason or another, some parents only go through with the first step. Several difficulties prevent parents from affording or meeting the requirements to improve their child’s hearing.

In a previous study, Yoshinaga-Itano looked at children with hearing loss in Colorado. The state has done well to promote early intervention for hearing loss.

Yoshinaga-Itano notes that “We showed that failure to diagnose hearing loss early can create an environmentally induced and preventable secondary disability, making children function much like children with cognitive delay.”

How Intervention Affects Speech

The research team at the University of Colorado at Boulder looked at 448 infants with hearing loss in both ears. The age of these children ranged from 8 to 39 months. Almost 58 percent of the kids have met the EDHI 1-3-6 guidelines.

To measure the impact of meeting these guidelines, the researchers how well these children learn vocabulary and language. The team measured the number of words the kids used when either speaking or using sign language via the Vocabulary Quotient (VQ) score. The difference was startling. Children who met the guidelines score significantly better than those who didn’t.

“We can’t change how much hearing a child has at birth or the educational background of a parent, but we can develop better systems,” says Yoshinaga-Itano. “Policymakers need to do whatever they can to make transitions from one step to another as seamless as possible so parents can meet the 1,3,6. And parents should know that there is an urgency to assuring that children who are deaf or hard of hearing have access to language as quickly as possible.”

Hopefully, the new study can show the need for parents to seek early intervention for their child. Like most diseases, the earlier you catch it, the easier it is to treat.

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