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Neuroscience Researcher Receives $1.5 Million Grant from Department of Defense to Develop New Diagnostic Tool for Hearing Loss

picture of dr. miller giving a lecture
Miller and his research team will use the DoD grant to continue developing powerful tools to diagnose hidden hearing loss and other listening problems. UC Davis

A $1.5 million grant from the United States Department of Defense (DoD) will help UC Davis Professor Lee Miller, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior and the Center for Mind and Brain, expand his lab’s research on hearing loss, an issue of relevance to both aging populations and military personnel.

“Nearly every individual serving in our armed forces will be exposed to hazardous noise levels at some point, often leading to hearing loss or other listening problems,” said Miller, whose research focuses on auditory neuroscience and speech recognition. “Any impairment that affects on-the-job performance, for instance tactical communications and maintaining situational awareness, threatens the safety and effectiveness of the individual and the entire unit.”

He added that following deployment “over a million veterans with service-related hearing disability – many of whom are older as well – struggle to understand speech in noisy environments such as work meetings or family gatherings, leading to a cascade of physical and mental/emotional health decline.”

Miller and his research team, including co-investigator Dr. Hilary Brodie in the Department of Otolaryngology / Head and Neck Surgery, will use the DoD grant to continue developing powerful tools to diagnose hidden hearing loss and other listening problems.

Our sense of hearing doesn’t just rely on our ears, it relies on our brain, which is responsible for making sense of the cacophony of sounds from the world around us. This complex pipeline can make diagnosis a tricky task.

“Even time-honored measures such as hearing quiet tones, which for decades have informed the US fitness-for-duty profile, utterly fail to predict speech comprehension and military job performance,” said Miller.   

Flanking the problem, Miller and his team developed a diagnostic tool that utilizes an individual’s brain waves to uncover hidden hearing loss.

“Our rapid ~10min brain-behavior assessment uses uniquely engineered speech sounds to characterize the entire hearing-speech brain simultaneously,” said Miller. “This will enable quick screening of service members in the field for auditory combat-readiness.”

The team tested the tool on more than 200 individuals with healthy hearing and hearing loss. With the new grant, Miller and his team will expand testing to include 120 veterans.   

In addition to validating the tool’s efficacy, the researchers will test its ability to assess an individual’s hearing before, during and after military service, as well as its ability to identify early warning signs of hearing decline.

“This research also has extraordinary dual-use potential to transform restorative hearing health care for millions of American civilians with hearing problems, across the lifespan,” said Miller. “This will open up new avenues of investigation and clinical application including improved hearing aids and other devices, new approaches to auditory training and counseling, and better validation of emerging cellular and molecular therapies.”

This award is funded through the CDMRP research program: Hearing Restoration Research Program (HRRP), and the award number is W81XWH2010485.

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