Speech perception by listeners with normal hearing is robust across a wide variety of conditions, whereas people with sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) typically show much less robust speech perception. The long term goal of these studies is to understand the neural information and neural mechanisms that underlie robust speech perception in order to guide the development of novel strategies for auditory prostheses, which currently have particular difficulty restoring normal speech perception in adverse conditions. The proposed experiments focus on the idea that nonlinearities in auditory-nerve (AN) spatio-temporal response patterns, which are associated with nonlinear cochlear tuning and are produced by the physiologically vulnerable outer hair cells, may contribute to robust speech coding. If true, this result would suggest the need for novel strategies for hearing aids, which currently do not attempt to restore normal spatio-temporal patterns in the AN.
Two specific aims focus on the effects of SNHL on enhancements that occur between the AN and cochlear nucleus (CN) in the coding of both spectral and temporal-envelope modulations, two important properties of speech signals. First, spectral coding will be evaluated by measuring the responses of AN fibers and CN neurons to vowel-like stimuli with important spectral features shifted near the best frequency of each neuron. Responses will be measured as a function of level, both in quiet and in background noise, to evaluate robust speech coding in cats with normal hearing and in cats with a noise induced hearing loss. The potential for nonlinear spatio-temporal response patterns to enhance speech coding will be evaluated based on responses of a simple cross-frequency coincidence detector predicted from measured AN responses. Second, the effects of SNHL on the robustness of temporal-envelope coding will be evaluated by quantifying temporal and spectral representations of the fundamental frequency (F0) from the vowel responses collected in Aim 1. If different effects of SNHL on periodicity and temporal-place measures of F0 were observed in the AN and CN, this result would constrain the possible neural mechanisms underlying enhanced envelope coding in the CN as well as perceptual theories of voice-pitch coding. The difficulty hearing-impaired listeners have in understanding speech in complex acoustic environments may be due in part to a reduced ability to segregate sound sources based on voice pitch.
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