By Raymond Goldsworthy, PhD
Associate Professor, Research Division
USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery
While cochlear implants restore substantial hearing, they can’t compete with the body’s natural hearing ability. Rehabilitation is required once the device is implanted in order to train the brain to recognize speech through the implant’s signals. Music recognition can be next to impossible for many because current implants negatively impact pitch perception and can make it difficult to identify individual instruments or vocalists.
Restoring music to people reliant on the implant
One of the key focuses of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC is to help patients with all levels of hearing loss regain as complete a spectrum of sound and experiences as possible.
In support of this mission, I’ve spearheaded a special research project funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health in support of the Sound Health Initiative. My goal is to restore music to cochlear implant users.
A key factor of the study is tackling how solve the impact the implant has on users’ pitch perception. As a key part of this effort, I’ve developed special rehabilitation software to help the brain recognize pitch from signals the implant sends to the brain.
I’ve also developed new ways of encoding improved pitch signals into the electrical stimulation patterns of the cochlear implant itself. Throughout this process, brain imaging has helped me to map changes in the brain that occur with pitch training.
Bringing implant users together for a common purpose
Finally, I’ve spent the past two and a half years working with a group of musicians reliant on cochlear implants who have volunteered their time to help me and my doctoral assistants test these technical developments. They are also testing practical rehabilitation methods to help train the brain to recognize the enhanced signals from the implant. Not only have they been a crucial part of this research, but they’ve been an enormous source of support and help to each other, sharing tips and tricks to help make their rehabilitation efforts as effective as possible.
Just before pandemic restrictions went into place in Los Angeles, the group met to play instruments and read music together. Since then, we’ve continued virtual music appreciation meetings once a week. My team seeks out professional musicians to play for the group. In turn, the group participants share what these instruments sound like through their implants. This helps us to make adjustments to the technology where needed.
Hopes for future practical application
I’m gratified to be part of the research team at USC Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, where I and other scientists can work on the research that truly matters to us with full confidence that when our efforts show proven benefits, they will soon be shared with patients to help them regain their quality of life. As a music lover and cochlear implant user, I’ve believed in the benefits of restoring music to other users for most of my adult life. Being able to put this belief into action, and to share the results with others, has been an extraordinary research experience.
For patients who may be interested in participating in this study, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.