April 02, 2009

An Anatomy of Noise And Its Implications

Noise is something we dislike, because by definition, noise means unwanted sound. But this definition is subjective, for what is music to my ears (say the heavy metal band Metallica) is noise to most people. In fact Iraqi prisoners were forced to listen to Metallica songs as a means of torture (culture shock and noise) by the American soldiers. Perhaps a better definition is, wrong sound at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Apart from acoustic noise; there is visual noise as found in television as ‘snow’, electronic noise (e.g. thermal noise or Johnson noise), cosmic noise and so on. Speaking of acoustic noise, one can’t help but think about the dreaded ‘noise pollution’ that seems to envelop us all. In addition to the nuisance it poses, it also causes anxiety, insomnia, increased blood pressure (hypertension), deafness and a hell lot of other bad things. So, it seems that noise is all bad. It’s not always so!

There is a disease called otosclerosis. In this disease, the footplate of stapes (a small bone in the middle ear) gets fixed to the oval window of the internal ear, producing conductive deafness. The patient can not hear normally as the ossicular (bony) conducting chain is at fault. But surprisingly, such persons hear well in noisy places (market, railway station). This phenomenon called Paracusis Willisii is said to occur due to the fact that one has to speak out real loud (over and above the background noise) in such places; thus making this loud voice cross the patients’ threshold of hearing. However, it may also be possible that the amplitude of the voice (in decibel) might ‘ride’ (summate) on the background noise amplitude, and this combined sound amplitude is heard by the ears. The brain then does some kind of fuzzy logic (or acts as a differential amplifier); and the ‘information’ is decoded. So, it seems that noise isn’t all that bad.

In ‘information theory’ even noise is said to contain information in it. One fine example that illustrates how visual noise might contain information is random dot stereography (and autostereogram). So, noise could be meaningful.

In diabetes mellitus, a very common disease across the globe, the blood glucose level rises. This and other metabolic products causes a condition called diabetic neuropathy, among other things. The person’s sense of touch is diminished and this results in inattention to sustained pressure(causes decreased circulation) or trauma to the affected area. This, along with the increased blood glucose and infection may then cause gangrene of the limb which might require an amputation of that limb. Cloutier et al have resorted to noise in an attempt to address the issue.

They applied mechanical noise directly over sensory neurons and have found that both vibration and tactile perception in these patients improved. This mechanical noise was christened as ‘stochastic resonance’ (stochastic means random or probabilistic; this particular term is coined since the frequencies are not tuned to match any particular frequency), and was applied at an imperceptible level. a biothesiometer, an instrument that checks vibration perception threshold or VPTThey applied this noise to the great toe of some of the affected individuals, while the controls received none (i.e. no SR). The effect was studied by measuring the vibration perception threshold (VPT). VPT was significantly lower in patients receiving SR compared to the controls (no SR). As the threshold was low, the patients’ sensitivity to detect vibration and tactile sensation improved. They hoped that a continually vibrating shoe insert could improve nerve function in these cases.

In another instance, Toshio Mori and Shoichi Kai of the University of Kyushu, Japan, showed that noise might improve brain function. They shone periodic signals (of 5 Hz flicker) onto the right eyelids and noisy signals onto the left eyelids of the subjects when they were at rest, and measured the intensity of their brain waves. Brain waves are electrical signals that occur in the brain due to the firing of neurons and are detected by electroencephalography (EEG). They found a sharp peak at 5 Hz, the frequency of the periodic varying signal. As they increased the strength of the noise signal relative to the periodic signal, a ‘harmonic’ peak emerged in the alpha wave band at 10 Hz. As the noise signal gained strength, this peak first increased and then diminished. The researchers believe that this harmonic peak is indicative of stochastic resonance in the cerebral visual cortex. Stochastic because of the non-linear way the brainwave behaves in response to the external stimulus. They argue that naturally occurring background electrical noise in the brain (from electron transport chains, neuronal activities) may play important roles in cognition and behavior.

However, not everything about noise is healthy as researchers from the University of California at San Francisco, USA suggest. They exposed healthy young rats to ‘white noise’, (random audio frequencies covering the full spectrum with randomly assigned amplitudes) and found that the development of their auditory cortex was delayed. They used electrophysiology tools to explore this. They also suspected that everyday environmental noise, also a type of white noise, could harm children by interfering with language acquisition and speech.

The story doesn't end here. Researchers have shown that noise has an important role in eukaryotic gene expression. When messenger RNAs (mRNA) are transcribed in the nucleus of a cell, they do so in a 'quantal' way; meaning that mRNAs are produced in spurt, in a stochastic (random) manner. The transcription process needs energy; as the promoter sequence have to be activated and for other biochemical reactions. This transcriptional noise may have implications in phenotypte diversity and cell differentiation process. Alternatively, bacterial pathogenicity may be increased by this 'noise' in gene expression.

The question is: should we scold our children when they continue with those awful noises? I am confused. But one more thing; it was this noise (in the microwave spectrum) that gave scientists the experimental proof that the Universe was expanding.

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Reference:
Prolonged Mechanical Noise Restores Tactile Sense in Diabetic Neuropathic Patients.
Cloutier R, Horr S, Niemi JB, D' Andrea S, Lima C, Harry JD, Veves A.
Int J Low Extrem Wounds. 2009 Jan 6.


Noise in eukaryotic gene expression, doi:10.1038/nature01546

Noisy signals strengthen human brainwaves
T Mori and S Kai 2002 Phys. Rev. Lett. 88 218101

White Noise Delays Auditory Organization in the Brain

Noise, Wikipedia

ResearchBlogging.org
Mori, T., & Kai, S. (2002). Noise-Induced Entrainment and Stochastic Resonance in Human Brain Waves Physical Review Letters, 88 (21) DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.88.218101
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