Chapter 9. Hearing, Vestibular Perception, Taste, and Smell
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to our mailing list, to receive news updates. Learn more.
Music can be a transformative experience, especially for your brain. Musicians’ brains respond more symmetrically to the music they listen to. And the size of the effect depends on which instrument they play. People who learn to play musical instruments can expect their brains to change in structure and function. When people are taught to play a piece of piano music, for example, the part of their brains that represents their finger movements gets bigger. Musicians are also better at identifying pitch and speech sounds – brain imaging studies suggest that this is because their brains respond more quickly and strongly to sound. Other research has found that the corpus callosum – the strip of tissue that connects the left and right hemisphere of the brain – is also larger in musicians. Might this mean that the two halves of a musician’s brain are better at communicating with each other compared with non-musicians? To find out, Iballa Burunat at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and her colleagues used an fMRI scanner to look at the brains of 18 musicians and 18 people who have never played professionally. The professional musicians – all of whom had a degree in music – included cellists, violinists, keyboardists and bassoon and trombone players. While they were in the scanner, all of the participants were played three different pieces of music – prog rock, an Argentinian tango and some Stravinsky. Burunat recorded how their brains responded to the music, and used software to compare the activity of the left and right hemispheres of each person’s brain. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Now hear this. Anthropologists have estimated the hearing abilities of early hominins – reconstructing a human ancestor’s sensory perception. Rolf Quam from Binghamton University in New York and his colleagues studied skulls and ear bones from Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus, two species that lived between 1 million and 3 million years ago, as well as modern humans and chimpanzees. Using CT scans of the bones, they built 3D reconstructions of the ear of each species. Then they fed a series of anatomical measurements into a computer model to predict their hearing abilities. The results for humans and chimpanzees fitted well with laboratory data, suggesting the model aligned well with real performance. For each species, they then estimated the frequency range they can hear best. Modern humans and chimpanzees perform similarly below 3 kilohertz, but humans have better hearing than chimps in the 3-5 kHz range. The early hominins had a similar sensitive range to chimpanzees, but shifted slightly towards that of modern humans, so they have better hearing than chimps do for 3-4 kHz sounds. Australopithecus and Paranthropus are not believed to have been capable of language, but they almost certainly communicated vocally as other primates do, says Quam. Quam thinks this shift in hearing sensitivity would have helped them communicate in open environments, such as African savannahs, where human ancestors are thought to have evolved bipedalism. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Bill McQuay and Christopher Joyce Acoustic biologists who have learned to tune their ears to the sounds of life know there's a lot more to animal communication than just, "Hey, here I am!" or "I need a mate." From insects to elephants to people, we animals all use sound to function and converse in social groups — especially when the environment is dark, or underwater or heavily forested. "We think that we really know what's going on out there," says Dartmouth College biologist Laurel Symes, who studies crickets. But there's a cacophony all around us, she says, that's full of information still to be deciphered. "We're getting this tiny slice of all of the sound in the world." Recently scientists have pushed the field of bioacoustics even further, to record whole environments, not just the animals that live there. Some call this "acoustic ecology" — listening to the rain, streams, wind through the trees. A deciduous forest sounds different from a pine forest, for example, and that soundscape changes seasonally. Neuroscientist Seth Horowitz, author of the book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, is especially interested in the ways all these sounds, which are essentially vibrations, have shaped the evolution of the human brain. "Vibration sensitivity is found in even the most primitive life forms," Horowitz says — even bacteria. "It's so critical to your environment, knowing that something else is moving near you, whether it's a predator or it's food. Everywhere you go there is vibration and it tells you something." © 2015 NPR
Christopher Joyce Ornithologist Arthur Allen of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology was a pioneer, hauling balky recording gear into the wilderness in the 1940s, and actually cutting acetate records of bird song on-site. Let's fast forward 45 years, and talk to Ted Parker, who inherited Allen's gift for recording birds and but added a twist. "Up here in the canopy, these are the hardest birds to detect," he told an NPR Radio Expeditions team in 1991 in the Bolivian rain forest. Parker was an ornithologist with Conservation International who spent months at a time in the tropics, lugging around a portable tape recorder. His skill in using his ears to investigate the world was legendary. "My parents bought me records of bird recordings that were made by people at Cornell," Parker tells the NPR team in 1991. "I spent hours moving the needle back and forth, and back and forth, and my mother would say, 'You are going to destroy the record player.' " Some called Parker the Mozart of ornithology. He'd memorized the sounds of more than 4,000 bird species. He used this knowledge and his tape recorder to quickly take an extensive and detailed census of birds in the tropics. "These birds spend all their time in that foliage that's 130 to 140 feet above the ground," Parker explains on the tape. "And if you don't know their voices, there's no way you could come to a place like this and come up with a good list of canopy species." © 2015 NPR
They are rather diminutive to be kings of the jungle, but two species of mirid bug make sounds similar to the roars of big cats. These calls have never before been heard in insects, and we’re not sure why, or how, the insects produce the eerie calls. The roars are too weak to be heard by humans without a bit of help. But Valerio Mazzoni of the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy and his team made them audible by amplifying them using a device called a laser vibrometer. The device detects the minute vibrations that the bugs produce on the leaves on which they live. “When you listen to these sounds through headphones you’d think you were next to a tiger or lion,” Mazzoni. The team found that when two males were introduced on the same leaf, they seemed to compete in roaring duets. When one insect heard a roar, it always sounded its own, apparently in response. This suggests that, as in big cats, the roars might serve to establish dominance or attract females. Female mirids don’t seem to roar. But unlike the roars of big cats, the sounds produced by bugs are transmitted through the solid material beneath their feet, usually a leaf, rather than by the vibration of air molecules. Thousands of insect species communicate through such vibration, but these roars are unlike any other known insect noise. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Nell Greenfieldboyce Picking a mate can be one of life's most important decisions. But sometimes people make a choice that seems to make no sense at all. And humans aren't the only ones — scientists have now seen apparently irrational romantic decisions in frogs. Little tungara frogs live in Central America, and they're found everywhere from forests to ditches to parking lot puddles. These frogs are only about 2 centimeters long, but they are loud. The males make calls to woo the females. Amanda Lea, a biologist in the laboratory of Mike Ryan at the University of Texas, Austin, says past studies have given scientists a pretty good idea of what the females find appealing. "They tend to like longer calls. They also like lower-frequency calls," says Lea. "Then, the other thing that's a really big one for these gals is the 'call rate.' They love faster call rates. The faster a male can call, the better." But in real life, love is complicated. Female frogs face countless suitors. So Lea and Ryan wondered: Would a female really always pick the male that scored highest on the froggy love-call meter? To find out, they put female frogs in a room with some loudspeakers. From one speaker the scientists played a recording of frog call that had a really fast rate. But other features in this voice were less attractive. Then the researchers played a second, different call for the female frogs. This voice was more attractive, but it was slower. The ladies had to make a choice. "They have two traits to evaluate," Lea explains. "They have the call rate and they have the attractiveness of the call." © 2015 NPR
Christopher Joyce Male treehoppers make their abdomens thrum like tuning forks to transmit very particular vibrating signals that travel down their legs and along leaf stems to other bugs — male and female. Male treehoppers make their abdomens thrum like tuning forks to transmit very particular vibrating signals that travel down their legs and along leaf stems to other bugs — male and female. Courtesy of Robert Oelman Animals, including humans, feel sound as well as hear it, and some of the most meaningful audio communication happens at frequencies that people can't hear. Elephants, for example, use these low-frequency rumbles to, among other things, find family or a mate across long distances. Whales do it, too. But you don't have to weigh a ton to rumble. In fact, you don't have to be bigger than a pea. Consider, for example, the treehopper, a curious little sap-sucking insect that lives on the stems of leaves. Or the tree cricket, which communicates by rubbing together tooth-like structures on its wings, the way you might draw your thumb across the teeth of a comb. University of Missouri biologist Rex Cocroft has spent much of his career listening closely to treehoppers. In 1999, a team from NPR's Radio Expeditions program rendezvoused with Cocroft at a locust tree in a backyard in Virginia. Soft-spoken and bespectacled, he was pressing a phonograph needle up against the stem of a leaf. © 2015 NPR
Dan Charles Ah, sugar — we love the sweetness, but not the calories. For more than a century, food technologists have been on a quest for the perfect, guilt-free substitute. Ah, sugar — we love the sweetness, but not the calories. For more than a century, food technologists have been on a quest for the perfect, guilt-free substitute. Ryan Kellman/NPR There's a new candidate in the century-old quest for perfect, guiltless sweetness. I encountered it at the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, a combination of Super Bowl, Mecca, and Disneyland for the folks who put the processing in processed food. It was right in the middle of the vast exhibition hall, at the Tate & Lyle booth. This is the company that introduced the British Empire to the sugar cube, back in 1875. A century later, it invented sucralose, aka Splenda. "We have a deep understanding of sweetening," says Michael Harrison, Tate & Lyle's vice president of new product development. This year, his company launched its latest gift to your sweet tooth. It's called allulose. "This is a rare sugar. A sugar that's found in nature," Harrison explains. Chemically speaking, it's almost identical to ordinary sugar. It has the same chemical formula as fructose and glucose, but the atoms of hydrogen and oxygen are arranged slightly differently. © 2015 NPR
A new clinical trial is set to begin in the United Kingdom using the powerful noses of dogs to detect prostate cancer in humans. While research has been done before, these are the first trials approved by Britain's National Health Service. The trials, at the Milton Keynes University Hospital in Buckinghamshire, will use animals from a nonprofit organization called Medical Detection Dogs, co-founded in 2008 by behavioral psychologist Claire Guest. "What we've now discovered is that lots of diseases and conditions — and cancer included — that they actually have different volatile organic compounds, these smelly compounds, that are associated with them," Guest tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "And dogs can smell them." The dogs offer an inexpensive, non-invasive method to accompany the existing blood tests for prostate cancer, which detect prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, Guest says. "It's a low false-negative but a very high false-positive, meaning that three out of four men that have a raised PSA haven't got cancer," she explains. "So the physician has a very difficult decision to make: Which of the four men does he biopsy? What we want to do is provide an additional test — not a test that stands alone but an additional test that runs alongside the current testing, which a physician can use as part of that patient's picture." The samples come to the dogs — the dogs never go to the patient. At the moment, our dogs would be screening about between a .5- to 1-ml drop of urine [or 1/5 to 1/10 teaspoon], so a very small amount. In the early days, of course, we know whether the samples have come from a patient with cancer or if the patient has another disease or condition, or is in fact healthy. © 2015 NPR
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 21302 - Posted: 08.17.2015
Teresa Shipley Feldhausen Move over, umami. Fat is the newest member of the pantheon of basic tastes, joining salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savory, or umami. Researchers at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., conducted taste tests pitting a variety of fats against flavors in the other taste categories, such as monosodium glutamate for umami. The result: People recognize some fats as separate from the other five taste categories, even with plugged noses. The researchers dub this sixth sense oleogustus. For instance, nearly two-thirds of tasters identified one type of fat — linoleic acid, found in vegetable and nut oils — as a distinct flavor. Texture wasn’t a factor; the researchers whipped up tasting samples that gave the same mouthfeel. Pure oleogustus doesn’t invoke notes of olive oil or fresh butter. It’s unpleasant, the researchers report online July 3 in Chemical Senses. Mix oleogustus with some of the other five flavors, however, and you could end up with doughnuts or potato chips. Citations C.A. Running, B.A. Craig and R.D. Mattes. Oleogustus: The unique taste of fat. Chemical Senses. Published online July 3, 2015. doi: 10.1093/chemse/bjv036. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 21252 - Posted: 08.02.2015
By Gary Stix A decline in hearing acuity is not only an occurrence that happens in the aged. An article in the August Scientific American by M. Charles Liberman, a professor of otology and laryngology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, focuses on relatively recent discoveries that show the din of a concert or high-decibel machine noise is enough to cause some level of hearing damage. After reading the article check out this video by medical illustrator Brandon Pletsch and its narrated animation explaining how the sensory system that detects sound functions. © 2015 Scientific American
Link ID: 21250 - Posted: 08.02.2015
By David Noonan Leaping through the air with ease and spinning in place like tops, ballet dancers are visions of the human body in action at its most spectacular and controlled. Their brains, too, appear to be special, able to evade the dizziness that normally would result from rapid pirouettes. When compared with ordinary people's brains, researchers found in a study published early this year, parts of dancers' brains involved in the perception of spinning seem less sensitive, which may help them resist vertigo. For millions of other people, it is their whole world, not themselves, that suddenly starts to whirl. Even the simplest task, like walking across the room, may become impossible when vertigo strikes, and the condition can last for months or years. Thirty-five percent of adults older than 39 in the U.S.—69 million people—experience vertigo at one time or another, often because of damage to parts of the inner ear that sense the body's position or to the nerve that transmits that information to the brain. Whereas drugs and physical therapy can help many, tens of thousands of people do not benefit from existing treatments. “Our patients with severe loss of balance have been told over and over again that there's nothing we can do for you,” says Charles Della Santina, an otolaryngologist who studies inner ear disorders and directs the Johns Hopkins Vestibular NeuroEngineering Laboratory. Steve Bach's nightmare started in November 2013. The construction manager was at home in Parsippany, N.J. “All of a sudden the room was whipping around like a 78 record,” says Bach, now age 57. He was curled up on the living room floor in a fetal position when his daughter found him and called 911. He spent the next five days in the hospital. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21248 - Posted: 08.01.2015
Michael Sullivan It's 5:45 in the morning, and in a training field outside Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, Cambodia's demining rats are already hard at work. Their noses are close to the wet grass, darting from side to side, as they try to detect explosives buried just beneath the ground. Each rat is responsible for clearing a 200-square-meter (239-square-yard) patch of land. Their Cambodian supervisor, Hulsok Heng, says they're good at it. "They are very good," he says. "You see this 200 square meters? They clear in only 30 minutes or 35 minutes. If you compare that to a deminer, maybe two days or three days. The deminer will pick up all the fragmentation, the metal in the ground, but the rat picks up only the smell of TNT. Not fragmentation or metal or a nail or a piece of crap in the ground." That's right: Someone using a metal-detecting machine will take a lot longer to detect a land mine than a rat using its nose. There's plenty of work for the rats here in Cambodia. The government estimates there are 4 million to 6 million land mines or other pieces of unexploded ordnance — including bombs, shells and grenades — littering the countryside, remnants of decades of conflict. Neighboring Vietnam and Laos also have unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War. Dozens of people are killed or maimed in the region every year — and there's a financial toll as well, since the presence of these potentially deadly devices decreases the amount of land available to farmers. © 2015 NPR
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS WASHINGTON — Move over sweet and salty: Researchers say we have a distinct and basic taste for fat, too. But it's nowhere near as delicious as it sounds. They propose expanding our taste palate to include fat along with sweet, salty, bitter, sour and relative newcomer umami. A research team at Purdue University tested look-alike mixtures with different tastes. More than half of the 28 special tasters could distinguish fatty acids from the other tastes, according to a study published in the journal Chemical Senses. Past research showed fat had a distinct feel in the mouth, but scientists removed texture and smell clues and people could still tell the difference. "The fatty acid part of taste is very unpleasant," study author Richard Mattes, a Purdue nutrition science professor, said Thursday. "I haven't met anybody who likes it alone. You usually get a gag reflex." Stinky cheese has high levels of the fat taste and so does food that goes rancid, Mattes said. Yet we like it because it mixes well and brings out the best of other flavors, just like the bitter in coffee or chocolate, he added. To qualify as a basic taste, a flavor has to have unique chemical signature, have specific receptors in our bodies for the taste, and people have to distinguish it from other tastes. Scientists had found the chemical signature and two specific receptors for fat, but showing that people could distinguish it was the sticky point. Initially Mattes found that people couldn't quite tell fat tastes when given a broad array of flavors. But when just given yucky tastes — bitter, umami, sour — they could find the fat. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Chris Woolston A study that did not find cognitive benefits of musical training for young children triggered a “media firestorm”. Researchers often complain about inaccurate science stories in the popular press, but few air their grievances in a journal. Samuel Mehr, a PhD student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, discussed in a Frontiers in Psychology article1 some examples of media missteps from his own field — the effects of music on cognition. The opinion piece gained widespread attention online. Arseny Khakhalin, a neuroscientist at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, tweeted: Mehr gained first-hand experience of the media as the first author of a 2013 study in PLoS ONE2. The study involved two randomized, controlled trials of a total of 74 four-year-olds. For children who did six weeks of music classes, there was no sign that musical activities improved scores on specific cognitive tests compared to children who did six weeks of art projects or took part in no organized activities. The authors cautioned, however, that the lack of effect of the music classes could have been a result of how they did the studies. The intervention in the trials was brief and not especially intensive — the children mainly sang songs and played with rhythm instruments — and older children might have had a different response than the four-year-olds. There are many possible benefits of musical training, Mehr said in an interview, but finding them was beyond the scope of the study. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
By Hanae Armitage Playing an instrument is good for your brain. Compared to nonmusicians, young children who strum a guitar or blow a trombone become better readers with better vocabularies. A new study shows that the benefits extend to teenagers as well. Neuroscientists compared two groups of high school students over 3 years: One began learning their first instrument in band class, whereas the other focused on physical fitness in Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC). At the end of 3 years, those students who had played instruments were better at detecting speech sounds, like syllables and words that rhyme, than their JROTC peers, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers know that as children grow up, their ability to soak up new information, especially language, starts to diminish. These findings suggest that musical training could keep that window open longer. But the benefits of music aren’t just for musicians; taking up piano could be the difference between an A and a B in Spanish class. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By C. CLAIBORNE RAY Q. Can you hear without an intact eardrum? A. “When the eardrum is not intact, there is usually some degree of hearing loss until it heals,” said Dr. Ashutosh Kacker, an ear, nose and throat specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, “but depending on the size of the hole, you may still be able to hear almost normally.” Typically, Dr. Kacker said, the larger an eardrum perforation is, the more severe the hearing loss it will cause. The eardrum, or tympanic membrane, is a thin, cone-shaped, pearly gray tissue separating the outer and middle ear canals, he explained. Soundwaves hit the eardrum, which in turn vibrates the bones of the middle ear. The bones pass the vibration to the cochlea, which leads to a signal cascade culminating in the sound being processed by the brain and being heard. There are several ways an eardrum can be ruptured, Dr. Kacker said, including trauma, exposure to sudden or very loud noises, foreign objects inserted deeply into the ear canal, and middle-ear infection. “Usually, the hole will heal by itself and hearing will improve within about two weeks to a few months, especially in cases where the hole is small,” he said. Sometimes, when the hole is larger or does not heal well, surgery will be required to repair the eardrum. Most such operations are done by placing a patch over the hole to allow it to heal, and the surgery is usually very successful in restoring hearing, Dr. Kacker said. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21187 - Posted: 07.20.2015
Jon Hamilton It's almost impossible to ignore a screaming baby. (Click here if you doubt that.) And now scientists think they know why. "Screams occupy their own little patch of the soundscape that doesn't seem to be used for other things," says David Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University and director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt. And when people hear the unique sound characteristics of a scream — from a baby or anyone else — it triggers fear circuits in the brain, Poeppel and a team of researchers report in Cell Biology. The team also found that certain artificial sounds, like alarms, trigger the same circuits. "That's why you want to throw your alarm clock on the floor," Poeppel says. The researchers in Poeppel's lab decided to study screams in part because they are a primal form of communication found in every culture. And there was another reason. "Many of the postdocs in my lab are in the middle of having kids and, of course, screams are very much on their mind," Poeppel says. "So it made perfect sense for them to be obsessed with this topic." The team started by trying to figure out "what makes a scream a scream," Poeppel says. Answering that question required creating a large database of recorded screams — from movies, from the Internet and from volunteers who agreed to step into a sound booth. A careful analysis of these screams found that they're not like any other sound that people make, including other loud, high-pitched vocalizations. The difference is something called the amplitude modulation rate, which is how often the loudness of a sound changes. © 2015 NPR
That song really is stuck in your head. The experience of hearing tunes in your mind appears to be linked to physical differences in brain structure. The study is the first to look at the neural basis for “involuntary musical imagery” – or “earworms”. They aren’t just a curiosity, says study co-author Lauren Stewart at Goldsmith’s, University of London, but could have a biological function. Stewart, a music psychologist, was first inspired to study earworms by a regular feature on the radio station BBC 6Music, in which listeners would write in with songs they had woken up with in their heads. There was a lot of interest from the public in what they are and where they had come from, but there was little research on the topic, she says. Once Stewart and her team started researching earworms, it became clear that some people are affected quite severely: one person even wrote to them saying he had lost his job because of an earworm. To find out what makes some people more susceptible to the phenomenon, the team asked 44 volunteers about how often they got earworms and how they were affected by them. Then they used MRI scans to measure the thickness of volunteers’ cerebral cortices and the volume of their grey matter in various brain areas. Brain differences People who suffered earworms more frequently had thicker cortices in areas involved in auditory perception and pitch discrimination. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Sarah Schwartz In a possible step toward treating genetic human deafness, scientists have used gene therapy to partially restore hearing in deaf mice. Some mice with genetic hearing loss could sense and respond to noises after receiving working copies of their faulty genes, researchers report July 8 in Science Translational Medicine. Because the mice’s mutated genes closely correspond to those responsible for some hereditary human deafness, the scientists hope the results will inform future human therapies. “I would call this a really exciting big step,” says otolaryngologist Lawrence Lustig of Columbia University Medical Center. The ear’s sound-sensing hair cells convert noises into information the brain can process. Hair cells need specific proteins to work properly, and alterations in the genetic blueprints for these proteins can cause deafness. To combat the effects of two such mutations, the scientists injected viruses containing healthy genes into the ears of deaf baby mice. The virus infected some hair cells, giving them working genes. The scientists tried this therapy on two different deafness-causing mutations. Within a month, around half the mice with one mutation showed brainwave activity consistent with hearing and jumped when exposed to loud noises. Treated mice with the other mutation didn’t respond to noises, but the gene therapy helped their hair cells — which normally die off quickly due to the mutation — survive. All of the untreated mice remained deaf. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015