DoD Likes What it Hears: New Grant Supports Research on Acoustic Communications

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Barbara Shinn-Cunningham
Barbara Shinn-Cunningham

Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (CNS, BME) plans to help both fighter pilots and the hearing impaired with a new grant she has won from the Department of Defense. She will study how the brain manages acoustic communications in high-stress situations.

This inaugural offering of the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow (NSSEFF) awards made grants to university researchers for long-term projects in basic science areas that have strategic importance to the DoD.

“Up to $3 million of direct research support will be granted to each NSSEFF Fellow for up to five years,” said William Rees, DoD deputy under secretary of defense for laboratories and basic sciences. Shinn-Cunningham is one of six scientists selected from among more than 500 applicants from nearly 150 institutions.

Shinn-Cunningham examines how neural circuitry works in complicated situations to allow listeners who are simultaneously bombarded with many sounds to hone in on the most important one.

“How you select that one person to listen to is a very complicated interaction. It depends on who you want to listen to, the direction that person is in, the quality of their voice as well as characteristics of the other, competing sounds around you,” said Shinn-Cunningham. “There are a number of situations where things break down and people have difficulty.”

The Department of Defense is interested in this information for situations in which soldiers receive information from many sources, such as a battle, a command post with information coming in from many different units, or a fighter plane going down with many alarms blaring. Pilots can become disoriented flying over landscapes with a flat horizon, said Shinn-Cunningham, heading down even though they think they are going up. In this situation, the brain may shut out all the warning signals that could help the pilot or may focus too briefly on each one to make sense of it. In either of these cases, the pilot may not register an urgent alarm indicating that the plane is heading towards the ground.

“The amount of information they’re supposed to be processing may be too much –especially at a time of crisis.” says Shinn-Cunningham. “Our work asks, can I better present the information to the listener so they get out of this inefficient mental state? Can I give them just enough, and the most important, information to ensure that they perceive it? If the plane’s going to crash, it doesn’t matter that the fuel’s a little low.”

Hearing impaired people have similar problems, but in different situations. In crowded rooms, restaurants or at parties they cannot focus attention and filter out competing sounds. Even the most sophisticated hearing aids still lack the ability to do this efficiently. Although they can cancel some stationary sounds like air conditioners and spatially focus in on one speaker, they don’t help listeners track a conversation that rapidly switches from one speaker to another. As a result, many hearing impaired people feel socially isolated.

Shinn-Cunningham will study the brain’s responses to complex acoustic scenes using h electroencephalography (EEG). She will also test how subjects function in stressful situations – trying to answer questions that come too fast for the subject to keep up. While other methods of brain imaging, such as functional MRI, involve huge pieces of machinery, an EEG has the potential, five or 10 years down the road, she said, to create  a portable, wearable device that can both read what the brain is doing and then interact with the wearer in an intelligent way.