It’s long been thought that while we sleep, our brain shuts down many of our key senses. The sense of sight, smell, touch, and taste are relatively inactive as we catch up on our beauty sleep and our brain repairs itself for the day ahead, but what about our hearing?
Scientists have long suspected that hearing is the only sense that’s “on” all the time, but what does that mean for our brain’s functioning and development? A group of scientists from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has decided to investigate just that and their findings have shed some insight into how our brains develop in sleep environments with different noise levels.
After investigating the literature on children’s sleep environments, researchers from Vanderbilt University found a large gap in knowledge about the impact of sleep environments on the brain development of preschool-aged children. Since our hearing has long been considered to always be “on”, the researchers wondered how noises would affect the children’s brain activity and development.
To study the effects of sounds during sleep on a child’s brain development, the researchers tested individual children in a quiet room during naptime at their preschool. Using a portable EEG machine, the researchers collected information on the brainwaves of the children while they slept. The researchers played three nonsense words for a short period of time to the sleeping children and what they found is pretty interesting.
It so happens that the children’s brains demonstrated an ability to recognize the nonsense words that were played for them in a lineup of other nonsense words in a post-nap EEG. By studying the children’s brain activity as they listened to these nonsense words in the post-nap EEG, the researchers demonstrated that the children’s brains were, indeed, still processing auditory information, even while they were asleep.
This might not seem like groundbreaking research, but it could provide future studies with some significant insight into the benefits of auditory inputs as one sleeps. For young children, whose brains are taking in enormous amounts of sensory data each day, the sounds they hear at night, as their other senses are “turned off” may be critical for the development of certain brain areas.
This could be potentially problematic for children with hearing loss who use various devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants, to help them hear the world around them. If these children turn their devices off at night for the sake of comfort, the researchers fear that there may be negative consequences for their future brain development.
Moving forward, future research on this topic can help us better understand the importance of the sleep environment to our hearing health and brain development. Particularly for children with hearing loss, more information on the importance of audiological inputs at night can play a crucial role in best supporting their brain development through innovative technologies and treatment options.