Virtual reality games helping UK deaf children understand speech | Deafness and hearing loss.

Scientists have recruited an unusual ally in their efforts to help children overcome profound deafness. They are using computer games to improve children’s ability to locate sounds and understand speech.

The project is known as Bears – for Both Ears – and is aimed at young people who have had twin cochlear implants fitted because they were born with little or no hearing.

“These are children who are profoundly deaf,” said audio engineer Lorenzo Picinali, a project scientist at Imperial College London. “They require significant interventions to restore their hearing and we have found that computer games can make them much more effective.”

In one game, a player, wearing a virtual reality headset, operates a food stand and earns points for each order that is completed. The pace quickens and the player receives increasingly elaborate requests from cartoon characters. These are shot at them faster and faster from different directions. At the same time, background noises become louder and more confusing. “It is very challenging, but the game improves the child’s ability to locate sounds and that, in turn, helps them understand speech,” Picinali added.

“Our research has shown that the better you localize a sound (by pinpointing the location of a noise), the better you will also understand what someone is telling you. Your speech becomes clearer in noisy situations.

“By using computer games we can help a person improve their ability to localize sound and, in the process, understand speech.”

All kinds of factors affect how a person picks up sounds, Picinali added, including the size of their head or the shape of their ears.

Other innovations developed at Imperial include a computer game in which children aim at targets that become increasingly faint until they can only be identified by acoustic signals. Others require players to use pitch differences to aim at targets that emit sound.

“The crucial point is that children with implants participated in the design of the games,” Picinali said. “They have played a key role in the development of the project from the beginning.”

Unlike hearing aids, which simply amplify sounds and are therefore of little use to profoundly deaf children, cochlear implants (placed in the skull behind the ears) convert air vibrations into signals. electrical signals that can be transmitted to the brain, where they are transmitted. They are experienced as sound.

However, these signals are often confusing and disorienting and can cause users to receive highly distorted sounds. Locating sounds and hearing conversations in noisy places is still very difficult to understand with a cochlear implant, and some users find that they simply cannot adapt to the sounds they produce.

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“An implant is a lifesaver for profoundly deaf children, but it is not easy to get used to them,” said Picinali. “We needed to find ways to make it easier for them to understand the signals being sent to their brains, and training with computer games should make a vital difference. “What we’re doing is helping them remap their auditory systems.”

There are around 6,500 children in the UK who are profoundly deaf and for whom a cochlea implant is the only hope of regaining their hearing. With the help of the comprehensive clinical trials unit at University College London, the project, led by Debi Vickers from the University of Cambridge and Dan Jiang from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, London, will recruit more than 300 young people with hearing difficulties and It will be completed in about 18 months.

It is hoped that the final result will not only help children with cochlear implants, but could also significantly improve the hearing of all deaf children, around 50,000 in the UK.

“All kinds of different causes can lead to severe deafness in children, from genetics to accidents and infections,” added Katarina Poole, another member of the Imperial team. “This could make a big difference in the lives of thousands of children.”

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