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Research center takes a long-term approach to providing patient benefit

Kirkwood, David H.

doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000369566.06550.2d

On the fourth floor of an ordinary-looking office building in downtown Berkeley is an extraordinary facility, unlike any other in the country. There, Brent Edwards, PhD, and an international team of scientists and engineers are asking the questions and seeking the answers that will lead to greater understanding of human auditory perception and fuel advances in hearing aid technology and its applications.

The facility is the Starkey Hearing Research Center (SHRC), a division of Starkey Laboratories, which is based 2000 miles away in Eden Prairie, MN. Edwards, executive director of the center, started it in 2004 with a single employee. Since then, the staff has increased to 10 and the premises have doubled in size.

Recently, Edwards hosted a daylong open house for the hearing industry trade press, where he discussed SHRC's work and goals and, with his staff, explained several current projects at the center and on the University of California campus, just a block away.

Edwards, a native of Saskatchewan, earned his doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan, where he focused on applying signal processing techniques to the human auditory system. He conducted psychoacoustic research as a post-doc in psychology at the University of Minnesota. That background led him naturally into the hearing industry, where he became director of research at ReSound.

When Starkey hired Edwards in 2004 to start its hearing research center, Jerry Ruzicka, the president of the company, gave him a free hand as to where to locate it. The choice of Berkeley was an easy one, says Edwards. “Innovation is in the air out here. There is a culture of doing new and interesting things.” Part of that is the close proximity of Silicon Valley and great universities such as Stanford, the University of California-San Francisco, and, closest of all, UC-Berkeley.

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In staffing the center, Edwards says he looked for bright people trained in strong research labs. While he wanted applicants to have some background in speech, audio, or hearing, he did not generally select people from the hearing aid field. In fact, he says, “We wanted to get top researchers who didn't know anything about hearing aids and get them excited about our field.” The group he has assembled possesses expertise in a wide range of subjects, including auditory science, signal processing, engineering, music, software development, and audiologic research.



He adds, “We have to make sure we have people thinking long-term. A good researcher is someone who figures out the right questions to ask and then figures out how to answer them.”

He also places a premium on communication and collaboration. He says, “I want people who talk to each other. I think that's how you generate the best ideas.” This collaborative approach is not confined to the center's staff. SHRC works closely with scientists at UC Berkeley and other universities and it invites scientists from other institutions to spend time at the center. For example, Brian Moore, PhD, the distinguished scholar from the University of Cambridge, will be visiting there in March.

When it comes to recruiting, Edwards says, “I have no trouble attracting talented people.” He says that researchers are drawn to the Starkey center because “what we have created is so unique.”

Although the parent company is a for-profit manufacturer, Edwards says, “The atmosphere here is very much like that of a research center at a university, and not like a typical company R&D center. There is no marketing, no sales, not a lot of meetings. There is less pressure to apply research to products and get the products out the door.”

Even a brief visit to the center captures the palpable feeling of enthusiasm and dedication among the predominantly youthful group of scientists. It's a workplace where people clearly enjoy and care about what they do. Edwards notes, “After seeing the success of dedicated researchers working separately from product development, Starkey has tried to duplicate that at its headquarters in Minnesota.” As vice-president for research, Edwards also oversees this group of about 30, and they interact with the people at Berkeley.

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Although much of the research conducted at the center falls in the area of basic science, it is designed for practical purposes. Edwards explains, “We are here to apply hearing science and focus it on benefiting people with hearing loss.” The director says that there are two specific paths that the center is concentrating on in pursuit of that objective.

One involves gaining a better understanding of how the brain processes sound and of the impact of hearing loss and hearing aids on auditory function. “We're beginning to understand how the world is represented by the cognitive system,” he says, adding, “We need to make sure that the cues the brain depends on are provided to people through their hearing aids.”

The other area of focus is seeking ways to help people with hearing loss enjoy music. That is an area that in the past was generally neglected by hearing aid companies and hearing professionals in favor of improving patients' speech understanding. But, says Edwards, “I look forward to the day when practitioners can provide technology that helps patients regain their love of music.”

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Seeking help from “golden ears”

Among the ongoing projects at SHRC that were demonstrated to the visiting journalists was one designed to gain a better understanding of how to process music so it sounds as close as possible to hearing aid wearers to what music sounded like before their hearing loss.

Dan Steele, MS, an engineer who is also a serious musician, explained that the center recruits subjects with “golden ears,” mostly musicians and audio engineers. They listen to recorded music through headphones and are given equipment that allows them to adjust the compressor settings, loudness balance, and other parameters to optimize the sound quality.

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Easing the strain for wearers

SHRC has been examining the effects of noise-reduction circuitry for some time, and its findings have contributed to the development of the new noise-reduction algorithm found in a hearing aid that Starkey will introduce next month at AudiologyNOW! One of those involved in this area is Nazanin Nooraei, AuD, an Iranian-born audiologist who worked as a clinician before turning to research.

In her study, Nooraei gives hearing-impaired subjects tasks testing their memory and their ability to follow directions in moving an arrow around a computer screen, all while listening to recorded speech through headphones. The subjects do this unaided, with hearing aids on but the noise reduction turned off, and then aided with the noise reduction on. The purpose is to see if being exposed to less noise allows subjects to concentrate and remember better and makes them tire less quickly than when the noise is not reduced.

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Academic partners

SHRC is conducting two joint inquiries with faculty at Berkeley. One partners is David Wessel, PhD, head of the university's Center for New Music and Auditory Technology. The other is Ervin Hafter, PhD, director and principal investigator at the Hafter Auditory Perception Lab.

During a visit to his lab, Hafter proudly showed off its large anechoic chamber. There, he and colleagues from the university and from SHRC conduct experiments inside an artificial spatial environment. Forty-eight computer-controlled loudspeakers create a simulated open field environment with virtual sources and echoic surfaces.

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Hafter demonstrated how a subject surrounded by loudspeakers simulating the sound of a cocktail party could quickly learn to focus his attention on one out of several voices, then shift it to another when directed.

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Edwards ended the day by taking questions from the press, including several about the future of his industry. He believes the aging of the tech-savvy baby boom generation and more sophisticated hearing aids will have a major effect on the market. He explains, “Historically, hearing aid technology was never sexy. Now it is. And when there's technology that people want to tell their friends about, it's a brand new ballgame.”

He sees the Starkey Hearing Research Center as a leader in a healthy industry trend toward developing technology that “focuses on patient benefit and not just audibility.”

It has been speculated that eventually hearing aids may become so sophisticated and function so automatically there will be nothing left for the audiologist or dispenser to do. However, says Edwards, even if fitting hearing aids does become easier and quicker, that will simply enable practitioners to devote more time to activities such as patient counseling that only a human being can do.

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.