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Posts Tagged ‘pupil dliation’

Photo: Greg Clarke, Flickr.
News: when humans and owls hear a new sound, their pupils dilate. Read how owl research is helping doctors identify hearing problems in babies.

Living on Earth is a wonderful radio program covering environmental news, and with the help of donors, it stuck to its mission all last year despite pandemic obstacles. In this episode, Living on Earth explains how research into owl behavior might help some newborn humans avoid developmental difficulties.

Bobby Bascomb at Living on Earth and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Jess Burns have the story.

“BASCOMB: Newborn babies are given hearing tests shortly after they’re born. It’s important to establish they can hear properly to develop language skills, but it’s tricky to do. Babies can’t tell doctors what they are hearing. … Now it looks like researchers at the University of Oregon may have found a solution to the problem using … owls. …

“BURNS: Our story starts about 20 years ago at the University of Oregon. Neuroscientist Avinash Bala was trying to measure how well barn owls hear as a way to better understand how human brains process sound.

“BALA: We had the owl in a quiet room. We had a video camera like a security camera watching the owl.

“BURNS: While they were setting up the experiment, going in and out of the owl’s room. The odd door was slammed down the hall. Bala would drop something on a desk.

“BALA: And I realized that every time something unexpected happened, the owl’s eyes seem to get brighter.

“BURNS: They showed brighter on the video because the owl’s eyes were dilating in response to the new sound, reflecting more light back to the camera, like a cat in headlights. The experiment Bala was actually there to do wasn’t working, says Institute of neuroscience co-director Terry Takahashi.

“TAKAHASHI: Avenashi was extremely frustrated when he came up and said, ‘Hey, this doesn’t work. The only thing that happens when I play a song is the pupil dilates.’ And then all of a sudden, we all stop and go, ‘Aah wait a minute.’

“BURNS: They recognize this involuntary pupil response could be used to measure hearing in owls. And pretty soon thereafter, Bala figured out that humans have the same involuntary response to new sounds.

‘What I realized was that we could also use this in people who are unable to respond for one reason or another. And the biggest such group of people is infants. Because babies can’t tell us what they’re thinking.’

“BURNS: There are hearing tests for young children out there and in use. … But they all have different limitations says OHSU audiologist Kristy Knight.

“KNIGHT: One of the things that we really struggle with young children is knowing can they recognize the difference between sounds like else versus elf, for example. Our regular hearing tests don’t tell us that.

“BURNS: Knight is working with Bala to test a new pupil-response hearing test.”

The new hearing test helps researchers understand if a child or adult with a hearing aid is recognizing different sounds. The level of pupil dilation varies.

“BALA: It’s so reliable, and it’s so predictable. And that is what makes it so eminently usable.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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