Research I combine behavioural, neurophysiological, computational, and virtual reality techniques to study the development of spatial hearing and its maintenance in adulthood. The complementary goals of this research are to provide basic insight into auditory processing and use these insights to improve auditory function in specific environments or populations where it is compromised. Action on Hearing Loss and the Wellcome Trust have written excellent articles about my research that are intended for non-scientists [AHL article, WT article]. The College de France have also made available a video in which I give an overview of my research and its relevance to sensory impairments. Click here for a full list of publications and here to see who has been citing my work.
Spatial hearing requires the interpretation and integration of many different sensory inputs and needs to operate in very different acoustical environments. This makes it an excellent model system for understanding fundamental aspects of neural processing that relate to plasticity, adaptation and cue integration. Throughout the lifespan, spatial hearing is also dramatically affected by various forms of hearing loss, including ‘glue ear’ in children, noise-induced deafness in young adults, and age-related hearing loss in older people. This can impair speech perception in noisy environments, and may negatively affect social integration and educational attainment. I am therefore particularly interested in research that can help rehabilitate auditory function in individuals with hearing loss.
Main findings In collaboration with many others, I have shown that the developing brain is extremely versatile when it adapts to hearing loss:
1. The developing brain (primary auditory cortex) uses two different strategies for adapting to hearing loss [1,2]. This is helpful because each of these strategies is useful for locating a distinct set of sounds. Previously, it was thought that the brain was only able to use one adaptive strategy.
2. Adapting to hearing loss does not necessarily impair your ability to use normal hearing. Indeed the developing brain can learn to maintain accurate perception despite switching back and forth between hearing loss and normal hearing , which can be caused by ‘glue ear’. Conceptually, this may be similar to bilingual children who learn to switch back and forth between different languages.
I have also shown that, with appropriate training, some of this flexibility is retained in adulthood . This has implications for how we should help children and adults with hearing problems. Since some of these issues are impossible to study experimentally in humans, I have published a number of studies confirming that ferrets are the most appropriate species for studying the learning processes underlying spatial hearing [4,5,6].
Click here for a recent review article that places my research within a broader context.