This could ultimately explain how and why some hearing problems worsen with age.
Harris suggested that, with further research, the findings might improve rehabilitation efforts to help older people cope with particular hearing difficulties.
"Hearing aids don't help all older adults," she noted. "They can improve audibility for many, but there are additional problems going on at the level of the brain that need to be addressed."
Robert D. Frisina, a professor of otolaryngology, biomedical engineering, and neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Rochester in New York, called the new research "a very promising and pioneering study."
"The idea that the brain plays a role in hearing loss as we age is not new," he said. "There are past indications of that. But this is the first study I've heard of to explore this idea in a new way by use imaging in humans, and that's exciting and provides this finding with some sizzle. And locating evidence of the problem in the gray matter part of the brain -- where neural processing goes on, as opposed to the white matter which is the communication zone, so to speak -- is also pretty new and important."
To learn more about aging and hearing loss, visit the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
SOURCES: Kelly C. Harris, Ph.D., assistant professor, otolaryngology head and neck surgery, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; Robert D. Frisina, Ph.D., professor, otolaryngology, biomedical engineering, and neurobiology and anatomy, University of Rochester, N.Y.; Feb. 15, 2009, Midwinter Meeting of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology, Baltimore
All rights reserved