Earplugs may not be the only way you can protect your hearing from loud noises. It might be as simple as tightening your ear muscles. At least that's what Ken Gerhardt, professor of audiology, hopes to find out.
One of his students told him that she could voluntarily contract the tiny muscles behind her ear drum, which automatically lessens the impact of loud sounds and protects the inner ear from damage. Up to this point, it's been thought of only as a reflex.
With funds from the Yardley Term Professorship, Gerhardt will conduct experiments to determine how she does what she does.
"Can we all do that? Well, that's the whole purpose of the project," he said. "Now we know she can do it, I'm setting up a series of experiments that will measure these muscles."
The project has two components: 1) an analysis of the student's ability to make this response occur and 2) trying to condition the reflex in other people.
"These muscles contract when loud sounds hit the ear, but for certain sounds, all the energy reaches the inner ear before the reflex has a chance to kick in," Gerhardt said. "If you can voluntarily contract the muscles before the loud sound occurs, then you can provide tremendous protection for the inner ear."
Gerhardt is especially interested in this particular project because of the implications it has for protecting hearing, plus the fact it all started because of a student's input.
"The interesting thing is it was all stimulated because of my interaction with students," he said. "What I do is bring my laboratory work into the classroom, so we're always talking about my research in the context of the classroom experience"
In fact, a unique aspect of Gerhardt's work is his genuine interest in research and teaching and how the two affect each other.
"I view teaching in a broad context," he said. "My job has a teaching aspect in the traditional sense, but it also has an educational component. My interactions with students are part of the experience which is so valuable for all our students."