New hearing test simulates noise of real world

May 23, 2002

MADISON - University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Ruth Litovsky has developed a hearing test that simulates the noisy real world, and the results could improve our understanding not only of hearing but also of developmental and learning disabilities among children.

Everyday and everywhere, a cacophony of sounds compete for children's attention. Because humans have binaural hearing - hearing with two ears - children usually can determine which sounds are more important: student chatter in the back of the classroom or the teacher's lesson on multiplication, for example.

"Binaural hearing enables us to understand and engage in the world around us," says Litovsky, a UW-Madison communicative disorders professor and an investigator at the Waisman Center, a facility devoted to advancing the knowledge of human development.

Without binaural hearing, different noises would blur together and become overwhelming. Thus, an impairment affecting binaural hearing could limit a child's ability to pick out important sounds in noisy environments, which in turn could affect learning, speaking and, more generally, concentration.

Until now, no test effectively evaluated how well children can tune in some sounds and tune out others. "Most hearing tests that are available clinically are done in quiet rooms, which make it hard to predict how a child, especially one fitted with a hearing aid or cochlear implant, might perform in noisy rooms," Litovsky says.

Litovsky's test, on the other hand, simulates the noisy world by including a variety of competing voices and other sounds that children might hear at school, on the playground or at home. Results so far show that some children can separate sounds better than others.

Children who take Litovsky's test, or "game," sit in front of a computer surrounded by a semicircle of loudspeakers. They listen for words that match pictures on the screen. Sometimes, they might hear only one voice asking them to point to a particular object. Other times, they might hear several voices coming from either the same location or from different ones. Yet, every time only one voice asks the children to choose an object. To correctly identify it, the children must try to ignore all the simultaneous speakers, except the one giving directions.

"When the voices come from the same place and when we add more competing voices, the task gets more difficult," says Litovsky, who has tested children as young as 4. But, the researcher has also found that each child's ability to separate the different speakers varies, most likely due to individual rates of auditory and cognitive development. "Adults are generally much better at this task than children," she adds, because many aspects of hearing continue to develop into the teenage years.

By varying the test, Litovsky has also found that children have more difficulty separating competing sounds that produce a more audible reverberation, or echo. Binaural hearing generally allows humans to quiet these echoes, but Litovsky says the acoustics of a room can greatly affect this ability.

"The results from these tests lead to interesting questions about the acoustical architecture of classrooms," she says.

Litovsky will present more of these findings Thursday, June 6, at the annual Acoustical Society of America conference in Pittsburgh.

In the future, Litovsky plans to work with children who are born deaf and who receive cochlear implants to restore hearing. Through her work at the Waisman Center, Litovsky plans to use her test to assess how children with developmental disabilities, such as autism, fragile-X and Down syndrome, hear in noisy environments. "To date, almost nothing is known about hearing abilities in children with disabilities," she says. "In order to be able to help these children function in realistic environments, we must understand how they hear."

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation has filed a patent on Litovsky's hearing test. Pilot versions are now available and some have already been distributed to clinics in Milwaukee, New York City, Boston and London. Litovsky hopes that clinicians and researchers will integrate her "game" into the battery of tests used to evaluate children's hearing.
NOTE TO PHOTO EDITORS: To download a high-resolution image of Litovsky administering the test, visit:

Writer: Emily Carlson (608) 262-9772,

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Related Disabilities Articles from Brightsurf:

College students with disabilities at greater risk for substance abuse
College students with physical and cognitive disabilities use illicit drugs more, and have a higher prevalence of drug use disorder, than their non-disabled peers, according to a Rutgers study.

Asthma among children with developmental disabilities
How common asthma was among children with various developmental disabilities (including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder and vision, hearing or speech delay) was compared to children without disabilities in this survey study.

Children with developmental disabilities more likely to develop asthma
Children with developmental disabilities or delay are more at risk of developing asthma, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open led by public health researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) as part of the Center for Pediatric Population Health.

Self-help groups empower caregivers of children with disabilities
Caregivers in low-income settings will be able to respond to the challenges of bringing up children with disabilities, thanks to a new model created by the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).

Unintended pregnancy rates higher among women with disabilities, study says
Pregnancies among women with disabilities are 42% more likely to be unintended than pregnancies among women without disabilities, says a new report published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

More medical students are telling their schools about disabilities, and getting a response
The percentage of medical students who told their schools that they have a disability rose sharply in recent years, a new study shows.

The unpopular truth about biases toward people with disabilities
Needing to ride in a wheelchair can put the brakes on myriad opportunities -- some less obvious than one might think.

How to improve care for patients with disabilities? We need more providers like them
When it comes to patients with disabilities, the chance of getting a clinician 'like them' is extremely low, which may lead to patients' reluctance to seek care or follow prescribed interventions and treatments.

Progress to restore movement in people with neuromotor disabilities
A study published in the advanced edition of April 12, 2019 in the journal Neural Computation shows that approaches based on Long Short-Term Memory decoders could provide better algorithms for neuroprostheses that employ Brain-Machine Interfaces to restore movement in patients with severe neuromotor disabilities.

Certain physical disabilities may affect outcomes in kidney transplant recipients
Compared with kidney transplant recipients who did not report a disability, recipients with a visual disability were at higher risk of organ failure and recipients with a walking disability were at higher risk of early death.

Read More: Disabilities News and Disabilities Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to