New research helping children: how the brain makes sense of speech in APD | Action Medical Research

New research helping children: how the brain makes sense of speech in APD

7 October 2013

Researchers led by Dr Doris-Eva Bamiou, of University College London’s Ear Institute, have embarked on a project to improve diagnosis of an often unrecognised condition, so children can receive better support and treatment. The project is being funded by children’s charity Action Medical Research.

Auditory processing disorder (APD) can seriously affect children’s education and quality of life. It makes it difficult for these children to make sense of what people are saying to them, even though hearing tests show their ears are working well. Difficulties in understanding speech when there’s a lot of background noise is a hallmark symptom of APD.

APD is thought to result from problems with the way sounds are processed in the brain. Children with the condition may have speech and language disorders, problems reading or spelling, and academic difficulties. And, because of all these daily challenges, their self-confidence can suffer.

Estimates suggest up to seven per cent of children have APD, but the condition is poorly understood.

People with APD often have difficulties listening, particularly if there is background noise, or if a sound is not clear. They can find it hard to tell where sounds are coming from. They may mishear words, will frequently ask for things to be repeated, and may take a while to respond to what they are being told. Their focus may drift during conversation and they can have trouble remembering long strings of information. [See case study below]

Doris-Eva says, “Other people may mistakenly perceive children with APD as naughty, uncooperative or even lacking in intelligence. Unfortunately, there is no ‘gold standard’ in diagnosis and the disorder all too often goes unrecognised.”

She and her team are aiming to develop a selection of techniques that together can be used to improve diagnosis. “Children with a clear diagnosis can more easily access the type of support that is most appropriate for them,” she explains.

The team also hopes to improve understanding of the biological basis of APD in terms of brain activity, which can be used to help better treatment in the future. Around 30 children aged eight to 11 years are taking part in the study, during which they will wear head caps fitted with sensors that monitor brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG).

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Case study: Luke, Oxford

It’s been a difficult road for Luke who is now 13. A friendly and outgoing boy, he is now receiving support targeted to his needs and doing well at school.

Like most other boys his age he is into computer games and is also a big fan of Lego® Cityscapes. He passed his grade one piano exam when he was just nine, but no longer plays. It was just one difficult thing too many for him.

He was an easy baby. Then Luke started to dribble a lot and at around 15 months his parents noticed that he wasn’t babbling. He refused to learn nursery rhymes, instead either miming or pretending to sing along.

This was the start of a 10 year battle for Luke who struggles to make sense of what he is able to hear and also has difficulty with speech, seriously affecting his education and self-confidence.

“Hearing tests have always shown his ears are working well. At two years old he only spoke 10 proper recognisable words,” says his dad Andrew.

Over the years Luke had various diagnoses including dyslexia, which his parents always doubted, and specific language impairment.

Mum Emma says: “The frustrating thing was that he was obviously quite bright, but some teachers thought he was just being naughty. They didn’t appreciate the huge effort he made.”

Finally, after 10 years of some confusion and frustration, Luke was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder (APD) just before Christmas 2011.

Andrew says, “The APD diagnosis was an absolute revelation. The research funded by Action Medical Research is aiming to improve diagnosis so that other children will not be mistakenly diagnosed or perceived as naughty or low in intelligence, and will receive the education and support they need. That can only be a good thing.”

High-res pictures of Luke and his parents, Emma and Andrew, can be downloaded from these links:

For further information please contact:

Toni Slater, Communications Manager
T: 01403 327478


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Action Medical Research is a UK-wide charity saving and changing children’s lives through medical research. We want to make a difference in:

  • tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
  • helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
  • targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.

Just one breakthrough, however small, can mean the world.

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