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For Children, a Little Hearing Loss Can Do a Lot of Damage

Published: 11/14/2013

Last Updated: 10/09/2017

Children who are subjected to short-term hearing loss, a condition often caused by ear infections, ear wax, and exposure to loud noises, could be at risk for what can be referred to as a “lazy ear.” Similar to a lazy eye, this condition is caused when different signals are sent to the brain from each ear for an extended period.

The first five years of a child’s life are integral in teaching the brain to understand and interpret auditory signals. To better understand why these issues can cause permanent damage, think of a child’s brain like a computer being booted up. It analyzes the surrounding environment to load different programs and understand new things. If the brain receives an inconsistent image of the surrounding environment, it does not learn the proper methods of interpreting the data that’s coming in. This is how a child develops a “lazy ear.”

Daniel Polley, Ph.D. has begun to study the effects of this issue in mice.

According to Dr. Polley, the goal of the study is to mimic the short-term hearing loss that can be caused by ear infections and to study how and when the auditory signals are disrupted as a result.

This study found that creating a temporary hearing loss in young mice disrupted basic alignment of sound frequency, and interfered with the neural computation of loudness differences between the ears, depending on the age of the mouse.

Dr. Polley believes this demonstrates his theory about the lasting effects of short-term, asymmetric hearing loss. Approximately 12% of children in the United States alone will experience at least one middle ear infection severe enough to cause a brief, mild hearing loss before age five, according to Dr. Polley.

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