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Young brains compensate for hearing loss more than older ones

People who lose the ability to see or hear often gain increased ability in their remaining senses - their brain compensates for the loss of one sense by enhancing others. Research has shown that younger brains are far better at compensating for a lost sense than older brains are. 

Professor Olivier Collignon from the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento in Italy is studying
this effect, know as cross-modal plasticity, with a view to finding more effective ways to help people who have
severe problems with loss of hearing or vision. 

"It appears that the reorganisation in the brain is much more important in early deaf people" said Prof. Collignon, 
"and it is qualitatively different to those who may lose their hearing later in life". Collignon is leading a project called CP-FunMoD, which uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanners to study the difference in plasticity of people who lost their hearing later in life to those who were deaf from an early age.

The long-term aim of the project is to improve understanding of when clinical help, such as cochlear implants, can offer the best prospects of deaf people to hear.

Dr Jodie Davies-Thompson, also on the project team, said, "It is about understanding how the brain reorganises when hearing is lost, and how the parts normally involved in processing hearing process another sense instead, like vision".

Doctors sometimes tell parents not to teach deaf children sign language, the thinking being that focusing solely on a visual language may cause the brain to focus on visial stimulas too much and cause difficuly with hearing and reproducing speech if they have a cochlear implant fitted later on. 

The project wants to find a more efficient way of identifying those who are more likely to benefit from a cochlear implant based on their cross-modal plasticity, so a better decision can be made early on.

"Once we understand how duration of deafness, age of onset and the influence of the extent of cross-modal plasticity affect the response pattern in different parts of the brain, we can start to understand the likelihood of a cochlear implmant being successful." said Dr Davies-Thompson.



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