Cummings Receives BBI Seed Funding to Study Hearing Loss Using Machine Learning

Jan 12, 2022

A University of Maryland computational biologist has received seed funding for an interdisciplinary project that uses machine learning to help untangle the myriad causes behind hearing loss.

Michael Cummings, a professor of biology with an appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, is co-PI on a $150,000 grant from the UMD Brain and Behavior Institute (BBI).

The project was one of five that received BBI seed funding this year as part of an interdisciplinary program focused on generating novel tools and approaches to understand complex behaviors produced by the human brain.

Cummings, who is also director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, will collaborate on the project with Matthew Goupell, a professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and director of the Auditory Perception and Modeling Lab.

“I’m thankful for this opportunity to further our understanding of age-related hearing loss, and for this seed grant that makes our initial collaboration with the Goupell lab possible," Cummings says.

The UMD team is focused on the causes of sensory and cognitive impairment that can rapidly increase with age.

Up to 40 percent of individuals older than 70 suffer from hearing and vision loss, Cummings says, and without the ability to communicate effectively, can become reclusive, frustrated and depressed.

In addition, about 25 percent of Americans older than 65 have some mild cognitive decline and 10 percent have Alzheimer’s disease.

Although each of these impairments have been studied individually, much less is known about the relationship between hearing, mild cognitive impairment, and dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or other causes, except that there is growing evidence of a link.

To understand how aging affects our sensory and cognitive systems, the UMD team believes it imperative to decipher the joint role of hearing and speech understanding ability, the neural mechanisms that contribute to age-related declines in these areas, and what role hearing plays in age-related cognitive impairment and dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or other causes.

Their study will use machine learning on a substantial existing database of behavioral, clinical and cognitive data that have been previously collected to generate results for subsequent research.

“The problem is very complex when you consider the relationship between aging, sensation and cognition in individual people,” Goupell says. “While we have known for years that there is a correlation between hearing loss and cognitive decline, we have not made much progress on understanding why this occurs. Machine learning will help guide us to the most probable answers, particularly ones that we may not have considered yet, which will allow us to design future studies with strong testable hypotheses.”

—Story by Melissa Brachfeld