Explaining the analogy: "Recruitment" of hair cells in cochlea

During my research into my own declining hearing- and health condition, I came across information about a phenomenon regarding hair cells in cochlea called “recruitment”. I strongly suspect “recruitment” is what happens to me. It certainly would explain a lot of the things that happen(ed) to me and my hearing and the fatigue…

(Most of the text that follows is copied from this page at hearinglosshelp.com and edited by myself for the sake of this blog and my readers.)

What is “Recruitment”?

Very simply, “recruitment” is when we perceive sounds as getting too loud too fast. How is it possible to hear too loud when the hearing in fact is vanishing, you may ask… Well, be patient with me and read on…

“Recruitment” is always a by-product of a sensorineural hearing loss. If you do not have a sensorineural hearing loss, you cannot have “recruitment”. In simple layterm this means that this condition only affects those who have a significant loss of hearing caused by haircell-damage in cochlea (mainly).

As a sidenote; there are two other phenomena that often get confused with “recruitment”. These are hyperacusis (super-sensitivity to normal sounds) and phonophobia (fear of normal sounds resulting in super-sensitivity to them). Both hyperacusis and phonophobia can occur whether you have normal hearing or are hard of hearing.

An analogy for understanding how “Recruitment” got its name

Perhaps the easiest way to understand “recruitment” is to make an analogy between the keys on a piano and the hair cells in a cochlea.

The piano keyboard contains a number of white keys while our inner ears contain thousands of “hair cells.” Think of each hair cell as being analogous to a white key on the piano.

The piano keyboard is divided into several octaves. Each octave contains 8 white keys. Similarly, the hair cells in our inner ears are thought to be divided into a number of “critical bands” with each critical band having a given number of hair cells. Each critical band is thus analogous to an octave on the piano.

Just as every key on the piano belongs to one octave or another, so also, each hair cell belongs to a critical band.

The requirements for “Recruitment” 

When you play a chord on the piano—you press two or more keys together but they send one sound signal to your brain. Similarly, when any hair cell in a given critical band is stimulated, that entire critical band sends a signal to our brains which we “hear” as one unit of sound at the frequency that critical band is sensitive to. This is the situation when a person has normal hearing.

However, when we have a sensorineural hearing loss, some of the hair cells die or cease to function. When this happens, each “critical band” no longer has a full complement of hair cells. This would be analogous to a piano with some of the white keys yanked out. The result would be that some octaves wouldn’t have 8 keys any more.

Our brains don’t like this condition at all. They require each critical band to have a full complement of hair cells. Therefore, just as any government agency, when it runs short of personnel, puts on a recruitment drive, so too, our brains do the same thing. But since all the hair cells are already in service, there are no spares to recruit.

Getting to the point – what “Recruitment” means

What our brains do is rather ingenious. They simply recruit some hair cells from adjacent critical bands. (Here is that word: recruit or recruitment.) These hair cells now have to do double duty or worse. They are still members of their original critical band and now are also members of one or more additional critical bands.

With only a relatively few hair cells dead, then adjacent hair cells may just do double duty. However, if many hair cells die any given hair cell may be recruited into several different critical bands, in order to have a full complement of hair cells in each critical band.



The results of the phenomenon known as “Recruitment” – the conclusion

The results of this “recruitment” gives us two basic problems. (notice the underlined parts!)

  1. The sounds reaching our brains appear to be much louder that normal. This is because the recruited hair cells still function in their original critical bands and also in the adjacent one(s) they have been “recruited” into.

    Remember that when any hair cell in a critical band is stimulated, the whole critical band sends a signal to our brains. So the original critical band sends one unit of sound to our brain, and at the same time, since the same hair cell is now “recruited” to an adjacent critical band, it stimulates that critical band also. Thus, another unit of sound is sent to our brains. Hence, we perceive the sound as twice as loud as normal.

    If our hearing loss is severe, a given hair cell may be “recruited” into several critical bands at the same time. Thus our ears could be sending, for example, eight units of sound to our brains and we now perceive that sound as eight times louder than normal. You can readily see how sounds can get painfully loud very fast! This is when we complain of our “recruitment”.

    In fact, if you have severe “recruitment”, when a sound becomes loud enough for you to hear, it is already too loud for you to stand.

  2. The second result of “recruitment” is “fuzzy” hearing. Since each critical band sends one signal at the frequency of that spesific critical band, when hair cells get recruited into adjacent bands, they stimulate each critical band they are a member of to send their signals also. Consequently, instead of hearing just one frequency for a given syllable of sound, for example, perhaps our brains now receive eight signals at the same time—each one at a different frequency.

    The result is that we now often cannot distinguish similar sounding words from each other. They all sound about the same to us. We are not sure if the person said the word “run” or was it “dumb,” or “thumb,” or “done,” or “sun,” or? In other words, we have problems with discrimination as well as with volume. If our “recruitment” is bad, our discrimination scores likely will go way down.

    When this happens, basically all we hear is either silence, often mixed with tinnitus or loud noise with little intelligence in it. Speech, when it is loud enough for us to even hear it, becomes just so much meaningless noise.

    This is why many people with severe recruitment cannot successfully wear hearing aids. Their hearing aids make all sounds too loud—so that they hurt. Also, hearing aids cannot correct the results of our poor discrimination. We still “hear” meaningless gibberish.

    However, people with lesser recruitment problems will find much help from properly adjusted hearing aids. Most modern hearing aids have some sort of “compression” circuits in them. When the compression is adjusted properly for our ears, these hearing aids can do a remarkable job of compensating for our recruitment problems.


20 Responses to “Explaining the analogy: "Recruitment" of hair cells in cochlea”

  1. deafmom Says:

    Wow, where was this info when I was growing up? I had terrible recruitment when I was younger. Every once in a while, I’ll experience it and turn my hearing aid down. Thanks for summing this up in an easy-to-understand way!

  2. kim Says:

    haha– yeah– I suffer from recruitment. Loved the pics. 🙂

  3. mishkazena Says:

    You explained the recruitment so well. Hopefully others will understand this disorder better. It’s for that reason that I am unable to tolerate any sound

  4. Tove Nagel Says:

    Dear son, Thanks for explaining this so well in spite of its complicated nature! I now understand one thing that has puzzled me lately as your hearing has deteriorated; you often ask me not to speak so loadly, and this has confused me, since your hearing is waning…Now I understand!

  5. Unconditional condition « Becoming Deaf in Norway 2007 Says:

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  6. Norwegian translation "Recruitment": Om fenomenet rekruttering « Becoming Deaf in Norway 2007 Says:

    […] Posted by Ulf on March 4, 2008 Here’s my original posting on this subject. […]

  7. My letter to the Norwegian Treasury Department « Becoming Deaf in Norway 2007 Says:

    […] Top Posts Making sense of the world through a cochlear implantFind new subtitles in a whiff!About meCaptioned video of me on national news 27.02.2008From HardOfHearing to deaf – the symptomsExplaining the analogy: "Recruitment" of hair cells in cochlea […]

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  10. chinky Says:

    very nicely explained….!!!!!!!!
    commendable job….!!!!!!!!!

  11. Linda Bruce Says:

    Thenk you! A much better explanation then my ENT specialist gave me.

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  13. vicky Says:

    I’m an audiology student, and you explained recruitment better than my prof did several months ago…thanks so much!

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  17. Candy Says:

    Kim’s post send me here, and I really like your post. What gets me amazed is that I do have that problem some of the time and I never knew there was a word for it! 😉

    Do you have implants now? and, if so, does it helps get rid of recruitment? If it does, then it would be a good reason for me to get it and stop procrastinating! 😉

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