This is a Discovery Research Grant awarded to Professor Jason Warren at University College London in 2022. We are funding this grant in partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK.
People with dementia often have difficulties with their hearing, finding it challenging to understand speech and other important sounds. This can affect their quality of life, hindering communication with others and leading to people becoming isolated. Hearing loss and dementia are often misdiagnosed as each other, which impedes treatment and care for both conditions. Much of this harm might be avoided and the impact of dementia delayed or prevented if hearing loss were diagnosed and treated more effectively.
However, our understanding of the link between dementia and hearing loss remains incomplete. We rely on our brains to interpret sounds and use them to communicate – we hear with our brains as much as with our ears. Dementia affects the brain, and different dementias target the brain in different ways, so we need to understand in detail how brain degeneration can lead to hearing difficulties.
Because hearing is such a complex process, hearing changes may give an early warning of dementia. Being able to measure these changes reliably could allow us to diagnose dementia earlier and improve hearing and communication using new, ‘smart’ brain-friendly technologies that move beyond standard hearing aids.
In this project, a team of researchers led by Professor Jason Warren will:
- assess and compare hearing brain and ear function using new tests designed to be relevant to two forms of dementia with early, prominent hearing difficulties. They will study people with Alzheimer’s disease (the commonest dementia) or primary progressive aphasia (a major dementia of younger people, led by difficulties with language and communication)
- establish the specific listening environment factors, hearing test scores and brain changes that are linked to hearing problems in these diseases. They will also measure the hearing brain’s ‘plasticity’, its capacity to adapt and recover from damage
- evaluate how well different hearing measures predict dementia diagnosis, disease course and brain degeneration. They will also evaluate how well they predict everyday hearing and communication ability in people with dementia.
- bring together this information to design and test new digital software and ‘virtual reality’ applications to develop ‘smart’ hearing aids. The aim is to enhance listening environments for people living with dementia.
This research will generate new tests and markers of hearing and auditory brain function in Alzheimer’s disease and primary progressive aphasia that will inform future diagnosis and clinical trials. It will guide the future development of personalised ‘smart’ devices to improve everyday listening and communication in people living with dementia. The findings from this research will also benefit people with age-related hearing loss.