Auditory perceptual learning and training

Lead Research Organisation: MRC Institute of Hearing Research


Auditory training, like physical training, involves practice. It is usually achieved by playing special computer games that require the listener to make judgements between similar sounds. The resulting auditory learning might be able to help children and older people improve their ability to listen by processing sounds efficiently. For those with hearing loss and other listening problems, auditory learning has the potential to be particularly useful. People using hearing aids and cochlear implants may also learn to use those instruments more quickly, and to achieve better outcomes in the longer term. Our research has shown that the benefits of training depend not only on the task or sound being trained, but also on the ability to attend to and memorize sound. Attention is probably the most important of these skills. If improved, it is likely to benefit not only a wide range of listening abilities, but more general mental skills, for example in older people. To see how training affects sound processing in the brain, we use techniques including measures of brain electrical (EEG) and magnetic (fMRI) activity before, during and after learning.

Technical Summary

The way we perceive the auditory world changes throughout life with development, experience and training. The peripheral auditory system reaches maturation early on in development, but the way in which the brain processes the input from the peripheral system changes dramatically throughout life. Auditory perception is dependent not only on the ability to hear sounds but also on the ability to process them efficiently. The aim of this strand is to investigate auditory learning with an emphasis on both the underlying mechanisms and translational potential.

Our findings so far provide converging evidence that auditory perception and learning depend heavily on cognitive factors such as attention, working memory and general IQ. Our most recent studies with normally hearing adults have provided evidence that improvement in auditory perceptual tasks at least partially depends on improved working memory for sound and the ability to attend to a task, even if it is not auditory (e.g. Tetris or Sudoku). Performance feedback affects learning, but different people are affected in different ways, depending on their IQ and naove auditory processing abilities, highlighting the need for an individualised approach to training. In typically developing children we have shown that training in a school environment improves ability to train for longer and achieve better results. Training is variable - some children can achieve adult-like thresholds with training, while others cannot - this ability depends on an interaction between age, IQ and the ability to attend to the sounds through the testing period. Training in simple acoustic stimuli was also shown to generalise to broader language measures of phonological awareness, which is a precursor for literacy.

Thus, aspects of cognition, and in particular top-down attention mechanisms, appear to be more important than bottom-up channel sharpening in the ability to improve perception through training. We are now planning to investigate what is the optimal number of training sessions, amount of training per session and content of sessions for adults and children. This will enable us to take training further in the hope of improving perceptual skills not only in children with auditory and language-learning disorders but also hearing impaired individuals and cochlear implant users. We will also seek the neural origins of learning in imaging studies of the brains of individuals as they learn.


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Halliday LF (2008) Frequency discrimination learning in children. in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

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Moore D (2007) Auditory Training: Rules and Applications in Seminars in Hearing

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Moore DR (2009) Use of auditory learning to manage listening problems in children. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

Description Auditory learning recognised as management pathway
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Auditory learning is increasingly becoming recognised as a managment strategy for all form of hearing and listening difficulties
Description NIHR Biomedical Research Unit
Amount £3,750,000 (GBP)
Organisation National Institute for Health Research 
Department NIHR Biomedical Research Unit, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2008 
End 03/2012
Title STAR 
Description System for Testing Auditory Responses (STAR) is a software package to test and train auditory perception in children and adults. This project contributed significantly to the development of STAR in establishing optimal methods for obtaining rapid and reliable psychoacoustic thresholds in naive subjects. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2006 
Software Developed? Yes  
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The expected impact is great as this software provides a platform for developing diagnostic and screening tool for clinical applications as well as a research tool for psychoacoustics, especially in children. 
Description Auditory learning to help learning impaired children 
Organisation MindWeavers Plc
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution IHR contributed expertise in understanding and know how
Collaborator Contribution MindWeavers developed the training soundsets and specified some of the further development of the training program.
Impact The development work is being used for further research at IHR
Start Year 2007
Title STAR (System for Testing Auditory Responses) 
Description STAR is a software package designed to measure psychoacoustic thresholds on auditory processing tasks. It uses adaptive algorithms shown to yield rapid and reliable thresholds in naive children and adults. STAR can also be used to deliver training programmes using similar scientific methods and techniques. Testing and training are embedded in user-friendly computer games designed to motivate and enhance engagement with the programme. Both the software and the methods used for assessing performance and delivering training were developed at IHR. Training techniques are being updated as new information about the effect of training and transfer of learning is uncovered. 
Type Diagnostic Tool - Non-Imaging
Current Stage Of Development Small-scale adoption
Year Development Stage Completed 2009
Development Status Under active development/distribution
Impact It is currently held that as many as 1 child in 10 suffers from difficulties in the school environment, attributable to difficulties with processing auditory information. These auditory processing problems are often co-morbid with other developmental disorders such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia and SLI (specific language impairment). Training programmes were demonstrated to provide remediation for some children suffering from processing deficits, but currently available commercial programmes are based on incomplete data and are not necessarily optimised for outcome. STAR is based on scientific research on the processes of training and transfer of learning. It provides the basis for an efficient, cost-effective treatment for a variety of learning problems. 
Description Clinical Section Website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Working on creating a website that will serve as an interface between the IHR - Nottingham Clinical Section and the public.

Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010,2011,2012,2013
Description Clinical Section leaflet 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A leaflet about the work of the Nottingham Clinical Section.

Leaflet is widely distributed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010
Description Feedback to participants 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results and Impact Sent interested former participants papers disseminating studies to which they had contributed.

Interest in the result of their contribution to science.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2006,2007
Description Invited talks to third sector 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Health professionals
Results and Impact 1-hour talks to a mixture of professional clinicians and public/patients organised by the Ear Foundation and Deafness Research (UK)

Network with clinicians who provide services for hard of hearing people and collaborate in research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007,2008,2009
Description Movie: "Sound Waves" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Made a short documentary movie about the decision to implant a cochlear implant in a young child, with the help of the Wellcome Trust and paired with a professional movie maker.

The film won a first prize at SCINEMA - a science movie festival in Australia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2008
Description Occasional visits from members of the public 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited an interested member of the public to talk about the research.

Not known
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010
Description School radio show for "Science Week"- Leicester 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Gave an interview for a radio show for and by children on "Super Sonic FM" hosted by a Leicester School as part of National Science Week.

Enthusiasm from children about science and the brain.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010
Description Talks to and discussions with cochlear implant companies 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talks to cochlear implant makers conferences and discussions regarding collaborative opportunities.

Ties with companies manufacturing cochlear implants who provide some equipment for the cochlear implant training projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2007,2008
Description Training of auditory health professionals 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Primary Audience Health professionals
Results and Impact Lectures on auditory perceptual learning and training, presented to hearing science professionals

Recognition of research area and group among professionals
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2006,2007,2008,2009,2010