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Rapid FFR: Developing a new method to quickly measure the electrical response to sounds in the auditory brain of children and adults


Project Description

Do you want to be involved in a project that involves interesting scientific questions in neuroscience, has an important technical component, and which could have a genuine impact on clinical practice in audiology? If so, read on!

The detection and diagnosis of hearing loss can be aided greatly by the accurate measurement of physiological activity in the ear and the brain in response to sounds. The acquisition and interpretation of these signals presents interesting signal processing, electronic engineering and neurophysiological challenges. Although responses to simple clicks can be obtained quickly and are of great clinical value (the so-called Auditory Brainstem Response - ABR), the information to be gained from a short test with such a simple stimulus is limited.

There is growing interest in another measure, the Frequency Following Response (FFR). The FFR is an electrical signal that can be recorded via electrode pads stuck onto the scalp and reflects the neural activity along the auditory pathway in the brain which is synchronised to the individual sound vibrations. Recent research suggests that by varying the fundamental frequency of the simulating sound (which is related to its pitch), it is possible to somewhat selectively record signals from nerves at different levels of the auditory pathway. Also, with such a technique, the response to sounds more complex than clicks can be used, including even speech sounds. Most importantly, both human and animal studies show that the FFR and ABR measure complementary aspects of neurophysiological functioning. In short, FFRs are likely to be a useful tool to use in auditory diagnoses.

One aspect of measuring FFRs that impedes their adoption in the clinic is the time it takes to measure them, which can be many minutes. We have been developing a novel method for measuring FFRs which allows a drastic reduction in acquisition time, meaning that it becomes easier to test with a larger number of sound types within one session, or to assess participants who have difficulty remaining still for a long time.

In this project, we propose to investigate more fully the use of this technique in adults, using various acoustic features, with particular emphasis on features crucial in speech perception. Secondly, we plan to apply it in children and infants, with a view towards making it feasible to include FFR in audiological test batteries. In our view, the developments proposed here could be an important step forward in the search for audiological tests that reveal more about the processing stages in the auditory pathway, and the way in which they can be deficient.

The work will primarily take place in the Department of Speech, Hearing & Phonetic Sciences (SHaPS) at UCL, under the supervision of Prof Stuart Rosen. SHaPS has a wealth of expertise and facilities relevant to speech and hearing research.
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/pals/research/speech-hearing-and-phonetic-sciences/shaps-research-activities

The second supervisor, Dr Adam Tierney, is based at Birkbeck College in the Department of Psychological Sciences. Dr Tierney is an expert in EEG and FFRs. He has extensive experience measuring FFRs in children, also bringing to the project expertise in the area of cognitive neuroscience.
http://www.bbk.ac.uk/psychology/our-staff/adam-taylor-tierney

The industrial partner, at which the student will do a placement, is Otodynamics Ltd, a UK-based privately-owned SME with an outstanding record of delivering innovative audiological test devices to the world market for the last 30 years. Otodynamics was founded by Prof David Kemp, who will also be involved in the project.
https://www.otodynamics.info/about-us/

This project has an important technical component, so any expertise in computer programming, signal processing and/or advanced statistical methods (e.g. bootstrapping) is highly desirable. At the least, a successful candidate must be willing to develop such expertise. Note that EU nationals who have been living in the UK for 3 years will be treated the same as UK nationals. For the details, see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/mrc-dtp/

Informal enquiries may be addressed to the principal supervisor Prof Stuart Rosen,

Funding Notes

Fully funded place including home (UK) tuition fees and a tax-free stipend in the region of £17,009. Students from the EU are welcome to submit an application for funding, any offers will be subject to MRC approval and criteria.

References

Coffey, E. B. J., et al. (2019). Evolving perspectives on the sources of the frequency-following response. Nature Communications, 10. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-13003-w

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