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March 27, 2017

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Turn the bass down? Risks of noise worse than thought

NEW YORK -- Matt Garlock has trouble making out what his friends say in loud bars, but when he got a hearing test, the result was normal. Recent research may have found an explanation for problems like his, something called "hidden hearing loss."

Scientists have been finding evidence that loud noise — from rock concerts, leaf blowers, power tools and the like — damages our hearing in a previously unsuspected way. It may not be immediately noticeable, and it does not show up in standard hearing tests.

But over time, Harvard researcher M. Charles Liberman says, it can rob our ability to understand conversation in a noisy setting. It may also help explain why people have more trouble doing that as they age. And it may lead to persistent ringing in the ears.

The bottom line: "Noise is more dangerous than we thought."

His work has been done almost exclusively in animals. Nobody knows how much it explains hearing loss in people or how widespread it may be in the population. But he and others are already working on potential treatments.

To understand Liberman's research, it helps to know just how we hear. When sound enters our ears, it's picked up by so-called hair cells. They convert sound waves to signals that are carried by nerves to the brain. People can lose hair cells for a number of reasons — from loud noise or some drugs, or simple aging — and our hearing degrades as those sensors are lost. That loss is what is picked up by a standard test called an audiogram that measures how soft a noise we can hear in a quiet environment.

Liberman's work suggests

that there's another kind of

damage that doesn't kill off hair cells, but which leads to experiences like Garlock's.

A 29-year-old systems engineer who lives near Boston, Garlock is a veteran of rock concerts.

"You come home and you get that ringing in your ears that lasts for a few days and then it goes away," he said.

But after he went to Las Vegas for a friend's birthday, and visited a couple of dance clubs, it didn't go away. So he had the audiogram done, in 2015, and his score was normal.

Last fall, he came across a news story about a study co-authored by Liberman. It was a follow-up to Libermans' earlier work that suggests loud noise damages the delicate connections between hair cells and the nerves that carry the hearing signal to the brain.

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