Subcortical pathways: Towards a better understanding of auditory disorders

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Hearing loss is a significant problem that affects at least 15% of the population. This percentage, however, is likely significantly higher because of a variety of auditory disorders that are not identifiable through traditional tests of peripheral hearing ability. In these disorders, individuals have difficulty understanding speech, particularly in noisy environments, even though the sounds are loud enough to hear. The underlying mechanisms leading to such deficits are not well understood. To enable the development of suitable treatments to alleviate or prevent such disorders, the affected processing pathways must be identified. Historically, mechanisms underlying speech processing have been thought to be a property of the auditory cortex and thus the study of auditory disorders has largely focused on cortical impairments and/or cognitive processes. As we review here, however, there is strong evidence to suggest that, in fact, deficits in subcortical pathways play a significant role in auditory disorders. In this review, we highlight the role of the auditory brainstem and midbrain in processing complex sounds and discuss how deficits in these regions may contribute to auditory dysfunction. We discuss current research with animal models of human hearing and then consider human studies that implicate impairments in subcortical processing that may contribute to auditory disorders.

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