A recent study using ferrets, a close relative to the otter, has shown insights into how children, specifically those with glue ear (a middle-ear infection or otitis media) compensate for temporary hearing loss.
By age 10, eight out of 10 children will have experienced one or more cases of glue ear. While it usually resolves itself, severe cases can cause temporary hearing loss. If the loss of hearing is persistent after medical interventions such as the insertion of tubes, it can lead to impairments later in life, even after normal hearing has returned.
In the study, researchers at the University of Oxford used removable earplugs to introduce intermittent, temporary hearing loss in one ear of young ferrets to mimic the effects of glue ear in children.
Professor Andrew King, a Welcome Trust Principal Research Fellow at the University of Oxford who led the study, explained, "Our results show that, with experience, the brain is able to shift the strategy it uses to localize sounds depending on the information that is available at the time.”
The new findings suggest that intermittent experience of normal hearing is important for preserving sensitivity to those cues and could offer new strategies for rehabilitating people who have experienced hearing loss in childhood. In addition, the finding that spectral cues from the outer ear are an important source of information during periods of hearing loss has important implications for the design of hearing aids, particularly those that sit behind the ear.