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Dawna Lewis, Ph.D., Studies Effects in Children with Mild Bilateral and Unilateral Hearing Loss in Complex Listening Environments

New studies at Boys Town National Research Hospital are using simulation environments to examine auditory skills in elementary age children with mild bilateral or unilateral hearing loss and how these skills relate to understanding speech in everyday situations such as classrooms, gymnasiums and cafeterias.

“In complex listening environments, children with mild hearing loss may have difficulty concentrating due to factors including multiple talkers, new information being taught and multiple sources of background noises,” said Dawna Lewis, Ph.D., Principal Investigator and Director of the Listening and Learning Laboratory. “Research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s found these children were failing at a rate 10 times higher than their peers with normal hearing. The purpose of the work being done in my lab is to examine which factors may be affecting listening for an estimated three million children with these types of hearing loss.”

The Listening and Learning Laboratory is equipped with technology that allows simulation of acoustic environments that are similar to those that children experience in a real-world school setting. For example, gymnasiums, cafeterias and classrooms have hard surfaces that create reverberation as well as have multiple talkers from many directions and at varying voice levels. Dr. Lewis and her staff are able to simulate the acoustics of the settings they want to test while maintaining experimental control.

“Children should have the best environment for learning,” said Dr. Lewis. “Elementary classrooms are typically the noisiest. While classrooms in middle and high school years may have lower levels of background noise, the material being learned becomes more complex. By focusing on elementary age children in our current studies, we hope to be able to find strategies and technology that will help them process new information they are learning across all grade levels.”

The study is one of five labs covered by an $11.3 million, five-year Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant, awarded to the hospital by the National Institutes of Health to develop a Center for Perception and Communication in children.

Tessa McDermott, B.S. and Andrew Dergan, B.S. currently work as research assistants in the lab. Tim Vallier, M.M., a systems analyst, provides support through the Technical Core. Sara Robinson, M.A. and Sarah Al-Salim, Au.D., provide speech-language and audiological support through the Clinical Measurement Core. Boys Town Hospital collaborators include Marc Brennan, Ph.D., Judy Kopun, M.A., Lori Leibold, Ph.D., Ryan McCreery, Ph.D., Mary Pat Moeller, Ph.D., Kanae Nishi, Ph.D., and Nicholas Smith, Ph.D. Outside collaborators include Kendra Schmid, Ph.D., University of Nebraska Medical Center and Bruce Tomblin, Ph.D., University of Iowa.​​