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Boys Town National Research Hospital Researchers Investigate Hearing and Speech Perception in Down Syndrome


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

​It takes years of consistent, high-quality auditory information to develop the ability to effectively “hear out" one person talking (for example, a teacher) when other people are talking in the background (for example, classmates).  Children with Down syndrome may be at risk for disruptions in this developmental process because of the high prevalence of middle ear infections and hearing loss that occur in this population. Despite these risk factors, very few research studies have looked at how well children with Down syndrome understand speech in noisy environments, such as the classroom.

Lori Leibold, Ph.D. and Heather Porter, Ph.D., along with their colleagues at the Center for Hearing Research at Boys Town National Research Hospital, are working to identify factors that improve listening-in-noise difficulties so we can increase the likelihood of success for children with Down syndrome. Dr. Porter explains that, “In general, kids have a harder time than adults when listening to speech if other people speaking. This is partly because we develop the ability to tune out background noise through experience. Problems with hearing get in the way of the brain learning to filter out distracting sounds. Therefore, we expect to see that this developmental process is impacted in kids with Down syndrome, and that it will be influenced differently for individuals by their varying sensory, language, and cognitive characteristics."

computer screen children see when listening to speech-in-noise task

Figure 1. Example of the computer screen children see when listening to the speech-in-noise task.

The team of researchers at Boys Town National Research Hospital has established Project INCLUDE to learn more about the communication abilities of children with Down Syndrome. Children who participate in this study complete a series of measures that assess hearing, language, and problem-solving abilities. Hearing assessments are completed using developmentally-appropriate, game-like tasks and children have the ability to demonstrate their listening skills using a touchscreen computer application (see Figure 1). The research team has decades of experience working with children with developmental delays, which they use to ensure participants and their families are also welcomed to a friendly and engaging environment.

Families of children with Down syndrome ages 5 to 17 years old are invited to participate in this study.  The study includes up to three visits that last 1–2 hours each. In addition, children receive hearing and language assessments by licensed professionals with expertise working with children with developmental delays. Information from this study will help us to determine influences on the developmental timeline for listening-in-noise in children with Down syndrome and serve as the basis for future funding applications to support work in this area. Compensation for this study is $15 per hour.

Boys Town National Research Hospital is dedicated to improv​ing care for children and families around the world. This research is important because Down syndrome is a common condition, affecting about 1 in 1000 people in the US, and gaps in our knowledge could have a negative impact on the care and services people receive. As we increase our understanding, we anticipate that we will be able to improve the services children with Down syndrome receive both locally and nationally.

This study is funded by the National Institutes of Health INCLUDE (INvestigation of Co-occurring conditions across the Lifespan to Understand Down syndromE) Project, launched in June 2018 in support of a Congressional initiative to investigate critical health and quality-of-life needs for individuals with Down syndrome [1]. The results from Project INCLUDE at Boys Town National Research Hospital will contribute to national INCLUDE goals by identifying factors associated with successful speech understanding in less-than-optimal listening environments and result in opportunities for improved communication outcomes for individuals with Down syndrome.



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