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science saturday White noise makes hearing more precise, study finds

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Over 5% of the world's population has disabling hearing loss according to the World Health Organisation.

(© Keystone / Gaetan Bally)

Researchers from the University of Basel have found that the brain’s ability to distinguish subtle noises improves when there is background white noise. This could pave the way for advances in the development of hearing aids, particularly cochlear implants.

It is widely believed that people hear better in a quiet environment rather than surrounded by noise. However, in a study published in Cell journalexternal link, researchers in Switzerland have discovered that background white noise increases the ability to discriminate between subtle tone differences or sounds patterns – an indication of better hearing.

Using awake mice, the researchers found continuous white noise suppresses activity of the nerve cells in the auditory cortex, which is the area of the brain that processes acoustic stimuli.

“We found that less overlap occurred between populations of neurons during two separate tone representations,” explains Professor Tania Barkat who led the research team. “As a result, the overall reduction in neuronal activity produced a more distinct tone representation.”

To confirm that the auditory cortex was responsible for the sound perception, the researchers used the light-controlled technique of optogenetics.

The study findings have the potential to help people suffering severe hearing loss. According to Barkat, it is conceivable that cochlear implants could be equipped with an effect similar to white noise in order to improve frequency resolution and thus users’ hearing.

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