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Interview with Andrew Goodwin from Deafness Research UK

Deafness Research UK is a charity that helps to create radical improvements in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of all forms of hearing impairment. Andrew Goodwin is their Information and Outreach Advisor and he kindly agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Deafness Research UK?

[Andrew Goodwin] My name is Andrew Goodwin and I’m the Information and Outreach Advisor at Deafness Research UK. My job is twofold. The first bit is to manage the advisory service, keeping our factsheets up-to-date and answering queries from the public. The second part of the job is the outreach side of things. I go out with our Bionic Ear Show up and down the country, visiting schools, businesses and various community groups. At these shows, I give hearing tests for people and offer advice on a whole range of problems to do with the ear, such as infections and hearing loss.

How is your Bionic Ear Show received? Are people generally positive towards having their hearing tested? Do you meet a lot of people who have hearing loss but who won’t accept it or do anything about it – is it possible to convince those people to get something done? Do you encounter any stigma towards hearing loss?

[Andrew Goodwin] The feedback over the last year or show has been tremendous! We generally get 5 out of 5 from teachers, school kids of all ages and even tough men working on  oil rigs in the north sea! We recently were at an exhibition in Reading, Berkshire and over the 3 days, we tested over 250 people. It was so easy to get people sat down in front of the screeners as most people are concerned about their hearing. Not enough to go to the docs, but are willing to get it screened. The majority were not surprised by the results, but I would say around 10% got a shock, especially those who had noise related hearing loss. We do get a few tears! Fortunately, I’m able to inform people in the next steps to take and have excellent factsheets which can help. I do work hard at convincing people, especially those with noise related hearing loss to do something. Having bright blue hearing aids is a real boon here as I can point to them as say, “You really don’t want to start wearing things like these!” Getting people to turn down their MP3 players or listen to them in a sensible manner is a bit of a crusade of mine.

The biggest problem is when I come across people who have age related hearing loss. Most people either refuse to believe me, or don’t recognise the severity of their loss, or have a hearing aid but keep it in the bedside drawer rather than in their ears where it would do some good. Recent research suggested that the average age people are fitted with aids is around 65, but the age when the start wearing them is around ten years later.

All of this confirms that there is still a stigma around hearing loss; especially age related hearing loss. This is slowly being eroded by two things, people are losing their hearing earlier due to a significant increase in noise related hearing loss; the second being the improvement of hearing aids, visually as well as technically. The fact that we now have more people in their 40’s and 50’s wearing slightly funky hearing aids will help break down the stigma. Nobody thinks twice about wearing glasses as they are so much a fashion item. When you see people like Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford and Brad Pitt wearing cool aids, then they won’t be such an item of derision…I hope!

What kinds of research are you doing at the moment?

[Andrew Goodwin] some of the studies we are doing at the moment are on hearing loss, improving the quality of the hearing aid programs and tinnitus treatments.

I was always under the impression that hearing aid manufacturers developed their own programme’s in isolation in a kind of battle to see who could release the latest and greatest. Do new programmes tend to get created by researchers like yourself and then developed by the manufacturers?

[Andrew Goodwin] Most manufactures do their own development, but we also have independent researchers who then work with manufacturers. There are a couple of researchers here at the Ear Institute and other places around the UK that are looking at improving the algorithms used by the computers inside hearing aids.

Do you think we will see a cure for sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus in our lifetime? Are we close?

[Andrew Goodwin] I’m very very confident that we will see some treatments for tinnitus in the next 10 years becoming a reality. Hearing loss will have to wait a bit longer! The whole auditory system is incredibly complex. Much more so than vision. Scientists have now realised just h much of what we “hear” actually goes on in the brain rather than in the cochlea.

I’ve read a bit about stem cell replacement operations being performed in Asia but I’ve never seen it mentioned in the western hearing press – is stem cell replacement a reality? Is it something we could all benefit from soon?

[Andrew Goodwin] As you can imagine, stem cell therapy is such a huge ethical issue, any researcher worth their salt will be treading very carefully indeed. You may have heard numerous stories of people being “cured” of hearing loss, but nothing has been released in respected journals, such as Nature, so I would treat these stories with caution. The reality is that research is going on, but no proper, clinically proven effective treatment is available at the moment, anywhere in the world.

There is some good news though, last year, scientists released a paper (in Nature and other scientific journals) showing for the first time in the history of this planet, hair cells in a mouse’s cochlea, regrowing after being damaged. Up till then, no mammal could do this. Reptiles, birds and fish all have the ability to regrow hair cells after damage, but no mammals. This is incredibly exciting and “could” lead to a treatment many years down the line.

The introduction of digital hearing aid technology brought huge benefits, do you think we will ever see anything so ground-breaking again? What will we be wearing in our ears in five year’s time?

[Andrew Goodwin] The introduction of digital technology was a quantum leap forwards for people who could benefit from them, me included! When I lost my hearing, it was only digital aids that were able to give me the semblance of hearing and I had to wait 18 months between losing the hearing and technology catching up; so I’m very grateful for digital technology. In the future, I don’t think we will have so much of a huge leap forwards other than better processing algorithms and better microphones. This will allow the hearing aids to give us better quality sound in a variety of situations, including the holy grail of hearing a single voice at a party!

Is there any way we can get involved with Deafness Research UK?

[Andrew Goodwin] YES! Our primary aim is to raise funds so that we can fund research into the causes of hearing loss and possible cures. We’ve got people running the London marathon, holding coffee mornings and everything in between. If people want to help fund-raise for us, we’ve got a team standing by for your call! On top of that, the FREE Bionic Ear Show I mentioned goes out to schools and businesses round the UK, so if you want us to visit your school, give free hearing screening to the staff where you work again, just drop me a line.

A massive, massive thank-you to Andrew for taking the time to answer my questions!