More than 31 million Americans suffer from some kind of hearing impairment (Kochkin, 2005). 1 Conductive hearing loss is caused by physical damage to the ear (such as to the eardrums or ossicles) that reduce the ability of the ear to transfer vibrations from the outer ear to the inner ear. Sensorineural hearing loss, which is caused by damage to the cilia or to the auditory nerve, is less common overall but frequently occurs with age (Tennesen, 2007). 2 The cilia are extremely fragile, and by the time we are 65 years old, we will have lost 40% of them, particularly those that respond to high-pitched sounds (Chisolm, Willott, & Lister, 2003). 3
Prolonged exposure to loud sounds will eventually create sensorineural hearing loss as the cilia are damaged by the noise. People who constantly operate noisy machinery without using appropriate ear protection are at high risk of hearing loss, as are people who listen to loud music on their headphones or who engage in noisy hobbies, such as hunting or motorcycling. Sounds that are 85 decibels or more can cause damage to your hearing, particularly if you are exposed to them repeatedly. Sounds of more than 130 decibels are dangerous even if you are exposed to them infrequently. People who experience tinnitus (a ringing or a buzzing sensation) after being exposed to loud sounds have very likely experienced some damage to their cilia. Taking precautions when being exposed to loud sound is important, as cilia do not grow back.
While conductive hearing loss can often be improved through hearing aids that amplify the sound, they are of little help to sensorineural hearing loss. But if the auditory nerve is still intact, a cochlear implant may be used. A cochlear implant is a device made up of a series of electrodes that are placed inside the cochlea. The device serves to bypass the hair cells by stimulating the auditory nerve cells directly. The latest implants utilize place theory, enabling different spots on the implant to respond to different levels of pitch. The cochlear implant can help children hear who would normally be deaf, and if the device is implanted early enough, these children can frequently learn to speak, often as well as normal children do (Dettman, Pinder, Briggs, Dowell, & Leigh, 2007; Dorman & Wilson, 2004). 4
- Sound waves vibrating through mediums such as air, water, or metal are the stimulus energy that is sensed by the ear.
- The hearing system is designed to assess frequency (pitch) and amplitude (loudness).
- Sound waves enter the outer ear (the pinna) and are sent to the eardrum via the auditory canal. The resulting vibrations are relayed by the three ossicles, causing the oval window covering the cochlea to vibrate. The vibrations are detected by the cilia (hair cells) and sent via the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex.
- There are two theories as to how we perceive pitch: The frequency theory of hearing suggests that as a sound wave’s pitch changes, nerve impulses of a corresponding frequency enter the auditory nerve. The place theory of hearing suggests that we hear different pitches because different areas of the cochlea respond to higher and lower pitches.
- Conductive hearing loss is caused by physical damage to the ear or eardrum and may be improved by hearing aids or cochlear implants. Sensorineural hearing loss, caused by damage to the hair cells or auditory nerves in the inner ear, may be produced by prolonged exposure to sounds of more than 85 decibels.
EXERCISES AND CRITICAL THINKING
- Given what you have learned about hearing in this chapter, are you engaging in any activities that might cause long-term hearing loss? If so, how might you change your behavior to reduce the likelihood of suffering damage?