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Hearing Researcher Brad Buran | Meeting the Minds

A lost sense sparked scientific quest

Brad Buran, who is deaf, said he found himself 'drawn to how the brain processes language.' Brad Buran, who is deaf, said he found himself "drawn to how the brain processes language." (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print| Text size + By Billy Baker
Globe Correspondent / November 5, 2007

Brad Buran lost his hearing when he was 14 months old, after meningitis damaged the hair cells of his cochlea. He was still a baby, but he can remember a musical train that ran along the railing of his crib, and he remembers that the train made sounds, but he can't quite remember what those sounds were like.

He would like to.

Buran is careful when he says this. The 26-year-old hearing researcher knows that, in some circles of the deaf community, the desire to hear again is a wildly controversial idea, a backhanded affirmation that there is something wrong with being deaf, something to be cured.

For the record, Buran does not think there's anything wrong with being deaf. Hearing "is just another tool," he said through a transliterator (an interpreter for the deaf), as if he's talking about having to use a pair of pliers when a wrench might make things a bit easier.

Buran also wants to make it clear that curing himself is not the reason he has pursued a career in hearing research. He started in the field, while still a high school student in Maryland, because of a desire to understand what happened to him. He stayed there - he's now a doctoral candidate in the Harvard-MIT Division of Life Sciences and Technology - because he has found deep fascination in the one organ that has failed him.

From a small laboratory inside the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary littered with equipment that looks like it's left over from the Apollo space missions, Buran researches auditory neurophysiology, which he describes as the way the various components of the auditory system interconnect and process sound.

In theory, Buran is just one of many people in his program who are researching hearing. He's a good researcher, his colleagues say, but what sets him apart is the obvious.

"It's very interesting to have Brad around because we have a constant connection to the deaf community and deaf culture," said Adrian KC Lee, a classmate of Buran's who recently finished his doctorate. "We can ask him about his experience, and he can provide a subjective measure. We've even used him as the subject for an experiment.

"He motivates us," Lee said.

Buran's most visible impact has been in teaching his colleagues how to communicate with the deaf community through cued speech. Reading lips is difficult because certain consonants and vowels look similar as they are mouthed; cued speech supplements that by having the speaker use handshapes (to identify a particular consonant) at different locations around the mouth (for vowels).

The cues for the system are so compact that they all fit onto a poster in Buran's office. And it's so easy to learn - as opposed to sign language, which can take years - that many of his colleagues have picked it up. One even had it mastered in a weekend, Buran said.

Buran didn't set out to devote himself to hearing research and deaf causes. As a senior in high school, he was required to do a research project. He happened to live near the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Md., so he decided to do his research project there because he was, simply, "interested in why my ears didn't work."

He became fascinated with hearing research, and initially paid close attention to hair cell regeneration. "I initially saw that as a way to help me hear again," he said.

But he drifted as he went off to college at the University of Maryland, College Park - he started with architecture and tried six other majors - before he found himself drawn once again to hearing research.

"I became more interested in other questions, and I found myself drawn to how the brain processes language, how the brain takes such various inputs and understands the semantics, the meaning," he said.

Should the day ever come when medical research allows Buran to hear again, he said the first thing he'd do is call his family, to hear their voices for the first time.

"A lot of deaf people say that [the ability to hear] would change who they are," he said. "For me, it doesn't change who I was. And it makes me who I am now."

HOMETOWN: Rockville, Md.; lives in Cambridge on the MIT campus.

EDUCATION: Hopes to finish his doctorate in June from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology's Speech and Hearing Biosciences and Technology program.

FAMILY: Parents, Robert and Linda, run a company called Information Systems Solutions; brother Brian, 23, is a network engineer in Miami; sister, Kim, 21, is a student at Kansas State University; brother Brett is a senior in high school.

HOBBIES: Does work for nonprofit deaf and cued speech organizations; loves skiing and hiking; enjoys sailing and bought a catamaran this summer that he's planning to refurbish.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a profile of hearing researcher Brad Buran in yesterday's Health/Science section misidentified the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, where Buran is a doctoral candidate.)

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