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New Clinic Tunes Up Brain's Ability To Listen For Kids and Adults

Northwestern clinicians will help sharpen listening skills through special training that enhances hearing and understanding.

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August 5, 2008 | by Marla Paul
Listening might seem like a passive activity, not a skill. You have ears, therefore, you listen. But it's not that simple -- at any age.

A middle-aged woman may start to notice she has trouble deciphering her friends' conversations in a busy restaurant. A 7-year-old boy who has trouble following directions may also have difficulty learning to read and write.

Both need to tune up their brain's ability to listen. Northwestern University has launched a Listening and Learning Clinic on its Evanston campus to help children and adults do exactly that. Northwestern clinicians will teach people to sharpen their listening skills through special training that alters the way the brain processes sound and enhances hearing and understanding.

"We wanted to address the pervasive social problems that accompany poor listening skills," said Nina Kraus, clinic founder. About 10 percent of children struggle with listening and reading problems. Many older adults have trouble hearing in noisy environments, a problem that increases as people age and is triggered by changes in the brain's ability to transcribe sound as well as by high frequency hearing loss.

The treatment programs at the new clinic are based on the latest scientific research -- some of it from Kraus' lab -- and the expertise of scientists and clinicians who specialize in hearing, language and learning. Knowledge from these three specialties is usually not integrated within the same treatment program, said Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor in the Departments of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Neurobiology and Physiology, and Otolaryngology.

At the clinic, Sumit Dhar, Patrick Wong and Steve Zecker also are leaders in neurobiological research that examines the relationship between the brain and listening, learning and language. They are associate professors in communication sciences and disorders.

"Children with listening and learning problems traditionally bounce from one professional to another," said Zecker. "They get multiple diagnoses, each of which is provided by a professional with expertise largely confined to a single area, when, in fact, these problems are all interconnected in the brain. Traditionally, it has been very disjointed and frustrating for the clients. We're changing that."

Delayed language development in children may indicate a listening problem. Scientific studies show that some children's brains are less efficient at using auditory information or processing sound, Kraus said. That may evolve into a learning problem as children grow older.

Children with listening difficulties may have trouble following directions, misuse or mishear words, complain of excessive or loud noises or be described by teachers as inattentive. "A teacher might say, 'He doesn't listen,' but he also may be a poor reader. These children struggle with phonics skills," said Susan Mulhern, a clinician at the Listening and Learning Clinic. "If you can intervene and support these children, that will be beneficial down the road."

The clinic will scientifically monitor the results of its work with clients to assess what strategies work and for whom. "Clinicians and parents are hungry for programs and treatments. There are a number of these available, but often there is little scientific backing," Kraus said.

Children who enroll in the program will undergo a broad assessment of perceptual, language and learning abilities. They will then participate in reading and auditory training in one-on-one sessions with a clinician and use a computer program three times a week.

Adults will undergo a full hearing evaluation to determine their needs. Based on the results, the clinic staff will develop an auditory training program designed to maximize hearing and listening abilities, either with or without a hearing aid. One component will use a computer program that simulates challenging listening conditions -- such as a cafeteria or cocktail party -- to train clients to focus their hearing to listen effectively. This training also promotes structural and functional changes in the brain that can make listening and hearing easier.

The clinic launched its first 10-week program in September. For more information, call 847-491-3165 (adult services) or 847-467-0776 (pediatric services), or visit www.listenlearn.northwestern.edu.