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Dhar: Early detection and accessibility are solutions to hearing loss puzzle

An audience of students, faculty, and guests attended the ninth annual Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Lecture on Wednesday, May 14, featuring 2014 Pepper Lecturer Sumitrajit Dhar.

Dhar is a professor in the Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and a Fellow of the Hugh Knowles Center in the Northwestern University School of Communication. He studies the physiology involved in sounds created within the inner ear with the goal of developing better diagnostic tests for hearing loss.

Dhar’s lecture, “The Two Pieces of the Hearing Loss Puzzle,” discussed this very goal.

From left: School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe, Roxelyn Pepper, 2014 Pepper Lecturer Sumitrajit Dhar, Richard Pepper, and Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders Chair Viorica Marian.

“Thirty-six million Americans and 360 million people world wide have significant hearing loss,” Dhar said. “Only one in five of these individuals seek treatment, and those who do often wait as many as seven years to do so.”

The puzzle pieces, Dhar said, are early detection and better accessibility. Early detection requires better tools, which is something that Dhar and fellow School of Communication faculty member Jonathan Siegel have been working on together. They have developed a new system capable of measuring the entire 20,000-Hertz human hearing range, including the higher, elusive range of human hearing.

That’s important, because those higher frequencies start to fall away long before people are aware of the problem. “Most people think hearing starts to degrade at about age 50,” Dhar said. “But really, it starts as early as age 10.”

The problem is that hearing loss is subtle and slow. “Nothing happens suddenly,” Dhar said. “You don’t notice. You adapt. You stop going to noisy restaurants, or you turn up the TV volume a little more. You start getting by on accommodations—your own and also the accommodations other people make for you.”

As hearing fails, Dhar said, the brain is what does most of the accommodating. The brain reorganizes to understand sensory information it’s taking in. But this deterioration in the input to the brain also results in deprivation and may accelerate decline in general brain function with age..

Dhar’s research is translational; his work will lead to new tools and methods in everyday clinical practice. When people get hearing tests on an annual basis just as women check in for their first mammogram at age 40 or men are expected to submit to their first prostate exam at 45, the puzzle will that much closer to being complete.

The annual lecture is made possible by the generosity of Roxelyn Pepper (C53) and Richard Pepper (McC53), who attend the lecture every year.