Musicianship enhances ipsilateral and contralateral efferent gain control to the cochlea

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Abstract

Human hearing sensitivity is easily compromised with overexposure to excessively loud sounds, leading to permanent hearing damage. Consequently, finding activities and/or experiential factors that distinguish “tender” from “tough” ears (i.e., acoustic vulnerability) would be important for identifying people at higher risk for hearing damage. To regulate sound transmission and protect the inner ear against acoustic trauma, the auditory system modulates gain control to the cochlea via biological feedback of the medial olivocochlear (MOC) efferents, a neuronal pathway linking the lower brainstem and cochlear outer hair cells. We hypothesized that a salient form of auditory experience shown to have pervasive neuroplastic benefits, namely musical training, might act to fortify hearing through tonic engagement of these reflexive pathways. By measuring MOC efferent feedback via otoacoustic emissions (cochlear emitted sounds), we show that dynamic ipsilateral and contralateral cochlear gain control is enhanced in musically-trained individuals. Across all participants, MOC strength was correlated with the years of listeners' training suggested that efferent gain control is experience dependent. Our data provide new evidence that intensive listening experience(s) (e.g., musicianship) can strengthen the ipsi/contralateral MOC efferent system and sound regulation to the inner ear. Implications for reducing acoustic vulnerability to damaging sounds are discussed.

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