Understanding the links between hearing problems and dementia

Research project: The auditory brain in dementia: defining deficits and harnessing capacity

Lead Investigator: Professor Jason Warren

  • Institution: University College London
  • Grant type: Project Grant 
  • Duration: 36 months
  • Amount: ÂŁ308,398.89

Why did we fund this research?

Comments from our Research Network volunteers:

The key project outcomes are excellent and the focus on capacity and rehabilitation demonstrates awareness and understanding of the impact of hearing/understanding loss on people with dementia and their care givers.

Project summary

Hearing impairment is now recognised as a factor in brain degeneration and is likely to be affected early on by dementia.

This study will compare brain scans and results in hearing tests from people with Alzheimer’s disease, primary progressive aphasia (PPA) and healthy people to determine how hearing, and changes to the brain structures involved, can help predict disease development.

The results will help inform two interventions to assess whether treatment can improve hearing and cognition in people with dementia.  

The background 

Hearing connects us with other people and the world at large. All too often, hearing loss leads to isolation, frustration and despair.

In people with dementia, reduced hearing magnifies cognitive decline and impedes diagnosis, management and quality of life.

People with Alzheimer’s disease and PPA (a condition affecting a person's ability to communicate) often report problems with hearing and communication

Recent work has shown that people living with dementia can learn to understand complex sounds, like distorted speech. This suggests the ability of, parts of the brain used for hearing, to alter connections and learn is maintained in people with dementia.

This could be a key opportunity to modify and possibly improve the course of disease through treatments, like Donepezil, a drug shown to boost hearing capacity in specific parts of the brain. 

What does this project involve?

This project aims to assess hearing and brain function in people living with Alzheimer’s disease and PPA over two years and compare the results to healthy controls. The team will be using a combination of hearing tests, brain scans, cognitive tests and information about the impact of hearing impairments on daily life. They also hope to establish the specific changes to the brain that cause hearing problems in these diseases. 

The researchers will assess how well particular hearing measures predict diagnosis, brain damage, disease progression and clinical symptoms, disability and burden in these diseases. 

They will be using all this information to conduct pilot treatment studies into how well treatment with Donepezil and speech perception rehabilitation improve hearing and brain function in people with dementia. 

How will this project help people with dementia?

Hearing loss and dementia both have huge social and economic impact on the health and wellbeing of older people. The goal of this research is to use hearing tests to support earlier dementia diagnosis and design interventions to improve hearing and communication.

 With a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms of brain dysfunction in people with dementia, we are better placed to help effectively treat hearing problems, improving thinking and memory skills and quality of life. 

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