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Researcher to develop better hearing tests

800,000 Danes have problems with their hearing. This can lead to depression and a reduced ability to work. Ellen Raben Pedersen researches into making hearing tests better so that hearing clinics have better tools with which to assess hearing loss.

By Birgitte Dalgaard, bird@tek.sdu.dk, 20-04-2018

At the table, talk is lively. Words fly through the air, and laughter and shouts of 'cheers!' merge with the music in the background. But for some people, this is not at all fun. The sounds blend together and the voices become an incomprehensible noise. They have difficulty hearing what is being said.

The Danish hearing association, Høreforeningen, estimates that around 800,000 Danes have problems with their hearing. People with hearing loss can find it particularly difficult to hear in situations where many simultaneous sounds are present.

Many people believe that turning up the volume will help sufferers of hearing loss. Unfortunately, however, it is not that simple - the sense of hearing is extremely complex.

- Hearing loss can lead to social isolation, depression, weakened memory and reduced ability to learn and work. Hearing loss is not only a problem for the individual and their family. Calculations show that every year hearing problems lead to a considerable loss of production. Hearing loss can have major consequences, explains acoustics researcher Ellen Raben Pedersen from SDU Electrical Engineering.

Reached the final

 She has made it her research métier to assess and improve the hearing tests which are used in Danish hearing clinics. Because Ellen Raben Pedersen wants to reach out with her knowledge and strengthen her ability to communicate to people outwith her own field, she signed up for this year's PhD Cup and is now one of the competition's five finalists.

The PhD Cup is a communication competition, developed in a collaboration between Dagbladet Information, DR and Lundbeckfonden. The aim of the competition is to generate publicity for the entrants' research among the general public, and to bring into focus the best PhD theses from the nation's universities.

On Tuesday, the competition will conclude with a grand final show in DR's Concert Hall, during which each of the five finalists have three minutes to explain what their research is about.

Accurate and precise tests

 - The focus of my PhD project has been on so-called speech comprehension tests. The aim of these tests is to convert into numbers the ability to hear speech in a noisy setting, for instance at a dinner party, says Ellen Raben Pedersen. However, the accuracy and precision of these tests was unclear, so Ellen Raben Pedersen carried out assessments of them. This has led not only to greater knowledge about the tests but also to knowledge that can be used to create new and even better tests.

Speech comprehension tests are used not only in the nation's hearing clinics. They are also used by the hearing aid industry to develop new hearing aids and to research into how hearing functions.

Therefore, better tests will contribute not only to helping patients with hearing problems here and now, but also to gaining greater knowledge about hearing, which could alleviate even more hearing problems in the future.

Ellen Raben Pedersen's research is supported by Oticon Foundation.

Critical of tests

Since Ellen Raben Pedersen graduated with an MSc in Engineering in Physics and Technology from SDU in 2007, she has worked and researched in hearing. She was involved in a major research project about the hearing of classical musicians. Her focus was on developing the perfect ear defenders which would enable musicians to hear their instruments without damaging their hearing in the long term.

In addition, she has developed a user-based hearing test. In the test, sentences and noise are played together. For each word played, the patient chooses an answer on a screen. Today, the test is used in many hearing clinics and has also been used in research projects. For instance, it was used in a project about musical training in young people with cochlear implants - an advanced hearing aid implanted in the ear.

- I've probably been a bit affected by researching so intensively into tests. I've become incredibly aware of the uncertainty in them. We have tests for everything under the sun, but are we sure that they actually provide the answers we're looking for? I've become more critical about that, says Ellen Raben Pedersen.

The final of this year's PhD Cup will be shown at 9pm on DR2, Friday 27th April