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Science & Tech

Tuning In

Barbara Shinn-Cunningham taps brains to find and fix hidden hearing loss

On a cool May evening, the sounds of a tuning orchestra fill a performance hall in Concord, Massachusetts, spilling out into the otherwise quiet streets of bistros with carved wooden signboards and quaint shops selling antiques, fine wine, and artisanal cheese.

Before the entire orchestra has assembled on the stage—in a historic, converted barn with klieg lights fixed to its rafters—it is still possible for an untrained ear to pluck specific instruments from the musical jumble. But as the official start of rehearsal nears, the growing ranks of musicians produce a louder and less decipherable cacophony. Finally, the conductor steps to his post and holds up a hand to signal “Quiet, please!”

Among the musicians waiting in the sudden silence that follows is Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, a professor of biomedical engineering in Boston University’s College of Engineering (ENG). By her side rest an oboe and an English horn (imagine an overgrown oboe), both of which she will play during the Concord Orchestra’s “Pops” rehearsal tonight.

Music isn’t a hobby for Shinn-Cunningham. Long before she was a scientist, she was a musician. She switched from piano to the oboe and then added the English horn in junior high. For a brief period in high school, she considered pursuing music as a professional, but she enjoyed science and math too much to follow through. When she chose a research focus in graduate school, her deep love of music led her to study the neuroscience of hearing.

For nearly three decades, Shinn-Cunningham has studied how our brains make sense of sound. Her lab’s investigations stretch from the precise algorithms of auditory signal processing to the black boxes of cognition and how shifting attention changes the way our brains sort through the daily mix of sounds we encounter.

Read the full story about hidden hearing loss research

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