Evaluating the Perceptual and Pathophysiological Consequences of Auditory Deprivation in Early Postnatal Life: A Comparison of Basic and Clinical Studies
Decades of clinical and basic research in visual system development have shown that degraded or imbalanced visual inputs can induce a long-lasting visual impairment called amblyopia. In the auditory domain, it is well established that inducing a conductive hearing loss (CHL) in young laboratory animals is associated with a panoply of central auditory system irregularities, ranging from cellular morphology to behavior. Human auditory deprivation, in the form of otitis media (OM), is tremendously common in young children, yet the evidence linking a history of OM to long-lasting auditory processing impairments has been equivocal for decades. Here, we review the apparent discrepancies in the clinical and basic auditory literature and provide a meta-analysis to show that the evidence for human amblyaudia, the auditory analog of amblyopia, is considerably more compelling than is generally believed. We argue that a major cause for this discrepancy is the fact that most clinical studies attempt to link central auditory deficits to a history of middle ear pathology, when the primary risk factor for brain-based developmental impairments such as amblyopia and amblyaudia is whether the afferent sensory signal is degraded during critical periods of brain development. Accordingly, clinical studies that target the subset of children with a history of OM that is also accompanied by elevated hearing thresholds consistently identify perceptual and physiological deficits that can endure for years after peripheral hearing is audiometrically normal, in keeping with the animal studies on CHL. These studies suggest that infants with OM severe enough to cause degraded afferent signal transmission (e.g., CHL) are particularly at risk to develop lasting central auditory impairments. We propose some practical guidelines to identify at-risk infants and test for the positive expression of amblyaudia in older children.