Study author Yvonne Sininger, a professor in residence in the division of head and neck surgery at the University of California, Los Angeles, said researchers had previously known that different areas of the brain were specialized to respond to certain sounds. "But, it was never considered that there was some facilitation starting at the level of the ear," she said.
Dr. Anil Lalwani, chairman of otolaryngology at New York University Medical Center, said, "It's interesting that such nervous system specialization may have origins in peripheral hearing organs.
"We've always assumed the supremacy of the brain, but this raises the possibility that peripheral organs may drive some of the differences seen in the central nervous system," said Lalwani.
Sounds are processed in different parts of the brain. The left hemisphere generally dominates in the processing of speech sounds, while auditory regions in the right hemisphere are often responsible for processing tones and music.
Sininger and her colleague, Barbara Cone-Wesson of the University of Arizona in Tucson, wondered if these differences might have developed in response to information received from the ears.
So they studied the results of otoacoustic emissions (OAE) tests from more than 1,500 infants in Los Angeles. The original information had been gathered to evaluate the hearing tests used to screen hearing in newborns.
Infants who had hearing loss or an ear disease were excluded from the study.
The OAE test measures the activity of hair cells in the outer ear. These hair cells amplify sound that enters the cochlea, a small, snail-shell shaped bone in the ear that transmits sound information to the acoustic nerve in the brain.
The babies were subjected to a series of sounds, either clicks or tones separately, through the use of a probe in each ear. Clicks were meant to simulate speech, according to the study.
Overall, the babies' right ears responded more to the speech-type clicks and less to tones, while their left ears responded more strongly to tones than to the clicks.
This specialization in the ears suggests that the information sent to the brain by the ears may lead to the development of auditory specialization in the brain.