Identifying hearing loss in young children is key to ensuring on-track development of speech and language skills. While the pediatric hearing tests currently available work well enough, new research suggests the possibility of using pupil dilation to determine hearing loss. This idea comes from an unlikely source – owl research.
Current Pediatric Hearing Tests
While older children and adults are able to participate in a hearing exam, infants are unable to confirm what sounds they can and cannot hear.
According to Kristy Knight, a pediatric audiologist, “One of the things that we really struggle [with] young children is knowing, can they recognize the difference between sounds like ‘else’ versus ‘elf’, for example? Our regular hearing tests don’t tell us that. We have to wait till the child has some amount of language development to really measure that clinically.”
Use of Pupil Dilation
Avinash Bala is a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon. He is currently working on a test that relies on involuntary pupil response to determine when humans hear a new sound.
About 20 years ago, Bala was working on a research project studying how barn owls hear the world, with the goal of better understanding how humans process sound. While his initial research project did not yield expected results, he realized that every time an owl heard an unexpected sound their eyes would dilate.
After determining that this involuntary pupil response could be used to measure hearing in owls, he figured out that humans have the same involuntary response to sound.
“What I realized was that we could also use this in people who are unable to respond for one reason or another. And the biggest such group of people is infants, because babies can’t tell us what they’re thinking,” Bala said.
Importance of New Research
“What we’re proposing is that if we have a test that doesn’t require expertise, any audiologists can administrate,” Bala said. “What it involves essentially is putting a baby in his mother’s lap or in a high chair playing sounds… and at the end of 15 minutes, the computer just comes that gives you up yes or no answer.”
Bala plans to keep the child’s attention toward the camera with the use of an animated video. The computer algorithm will then use measure their pupil size as a series of tones are played. With a grant from the National Institute of Health to further develop this test, Bala expects to produce a prototype sometime this fall.
To learn more about pediatric hearing tests or to schedule an appointment with an audiologist, contact Willamette Ear, Nose, Throat & Facial Plastic Surgery.