According to new research findings from Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC), cochlear implant users respond to some musical beats, and listening to music may benefit their speech perception and quality of life. These findings, which were published in an online article in the January 6, 2015 issue of Hearing Research, contradict previous beliefs and scientific research regarding music listening among people who use a cochlear implant (CI). The researchers say exposure to musical beats, such as those produced by drums, can improve the emotional and social outlook for CI users, and may also help improve their understanding of spoken language.

Jessica Phillips-Silver, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in Georgetown University Medical Center’s Laboratory of Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition, says that the cochlear implant is designed for language perception, but not for music perception. However, Dr Phillips-Silver believes that if cochlear implant users listen to music that emphasizes a beat, they may be able to improve both their speech perception and their music perception.

The announcement from Georgetown University reports that previous research has shown that cochlear implants, which bypass the outer ear to directly stimulate fibers of the auditory nerve, are deficient in transmitting the pitch and tone quality of music. Consequently, CI users may receive little training in music or musical movement. In the Georgetown study, investigators aimed to objectively measure if CI users can synchronize body movement in time to music with a regular beat, comparing their performance to that of hearing individuals. According to Phillips-Silver, the research team wanted to see if CI users heard and felt the beat, and if the beat tapped into sensory and motor areas in the brain.

The researchers tested 9 CI users and 9 hearing participants, asking them to react to 3 different renditions of Latin dance music that has a heavy beat. Participants wore a Nintendo Wii to measure body movement. The researchers report that both groups were able to move in time to the beat when drum music was used, although synchronization was greater in hearing participants.

“The advantage of drum music to implant users is likely reduction of the complexity of the music as well as absence of pitch variation, which cannot be processed by the implants,” said Dr Phillips-Silver.

The findings from this study suggest that cochlear implant users can enjoy a range of music if the composition significantly emphasizes the beat, and they may gain other benefits, too.

“We know that music training engages some brain plasticity—it refines the sense of rhythm, benefitting the perception of speech, so that may help [CI users] understand spoken language,” Dr Phillips-Silver said. “But also there is so much enjoyment in music—a strong beat activates the joy of body movement. What we hear is what we feel, and what we feel is what we hear.”

Phillips-Silver conducted the study at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research in Montreal, where she was a doctoral student. Other participating researchers were from the University of Montreal and from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Source: Georgetown University Medical Center, Science Direct, Hearing Research

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