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Is the din really harmless? Long-term effects of non-traumatic noise on the adult auditory system

Abstract

People are increasingly being exposed to environmental noise from traffic, media and other sources that falls within and outside legal limits. Although such environmental noise is known to cause stress in the auditory system, it is still generally considered to be harmless. This complacency may be misplaced: even in the absence of cochlear damage, new findings suggest that environmental noise may progressively degrade hearing through alterations in the way sound is represented in the adult auditory cortex.

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Figure 1: Typical range of common noise exposure durations and levels for a day.
Figure 2: Multilevel consequences of noise exposure and ageing.
Figure 3: Cortical response depression, tonotopic map disruption and reorganization after passive long-lasting exposure to moderate-level sounds.
Figure 4: Comparison of cortical reorganizations by environmental, traumatic and combined exposures in the cat.
Figure 5: Overview of effects of short-term and long-term exposure to non-traumatic environmental noise.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank N. Mellen for his careful reading of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Boris Gourévitch.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary information S1 (box)

Environmental, occupational and recreational sound characteristics (PDF 279 kb)

Supplementary information S2 (figure)

Time course of functional changes following passive exposure to moderate random sounds (PDF 198 kb)

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Glossary

Central auditory system

The part of the CNS that processes auditory stimuli from the cochlear nucleus to the auditory cortex.

dB(A)

An alternative to dB sound pressure level (SPL) so that 0 dB(A) is the minimal audible sound intensity at each frequency in people with normal hearing. dB(A) and dB SPL are very close (+−5 dB) between 0.5 and 6 kHz.

dB sound pressure level

(dB SPL). A physical measure of sound pressure for a given frequency, relative to a reference sound pressure of 20 microPascals in air (0dB SPL). Loudness is the perceptual correlate of this physical measure. dB SPL is mostly used in industry and non-human-related measures.

Equivalent sound level

(Leq). A measure of the total sound energy averaged over the duration of the observation period. Formally, this is 20log10 of the ratio of a root-mean-square (RMS) dB(A)-weighted sound pressure during the stated time interval to the reference sound pressure, divided by the exposure duration. This gives a single value of sound level for any desired duration based on the amount of sound energy contained in the time-varying sound. Note that the use of Leq is often discouraged for very long durations (from months to years).

Hearing thresholds

For a given frequency, the lowest intensities at which a pure tone may be heard.

Homeostasis

Originally a concept defined by C. Bernard (1865) and developed by W. B. Cannon (1932), homeostasis for a biological system is its ability to maintain internal stability while adjusting to changing environmental conditions by self-regulation processes. Examples of such processes for living organisms include body temperature and blood composition (glucose, iron and lipids).

Hyperacusis

An oversensitivity to certain frequency ranges.

Permanent threshold shift

(PTS). Noise-induced permanent loss of hearing sensitivity associated with irreversible cochlear hair cell damage.

Presbycusis

Progressive age-related sensorineural hearing loss that is bilateral and symmetrical. Higher frequencies are generally more affected even if genetically determined sensitivity differences need to be factored in.

Tinnitus

A perception of phantom sounds.

Tonotopy

The spatial arrangement of where sounds of different frequency are processed. This organization principle holds from the cochlea to the auditory cortex. Note that a non-tonotopic pathway parallel to the tonotopic one exists in the auditory pathways.

Temporary threshold shift

(TTS). Temporary hearing loss following noise exposure, which lasts a few minutes to a few days.

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Gourévitch, B., Edeline, JM., Occelli, F. et al. Is the din really harmless? Long-term effects of non-traumatic noise on the adult auditory system. Nat Rev Neurosci 15, 483–491 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3744

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