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Damaged Ears at the Cocktail Party – Investigating How Cochlear Damage Impairs the Neural Representation of Speech in Background Noise
The ability to understand speech in complex noisy environments is considerably degraded for those with hearing impairment. Hearing thresholds alone are insufficient to explain the range of speech in noise performance seen in patients, and amplification through hearing aids only provides limited benefit. Additional factors at the peripheral as well as central level might therefore play a role. Recent data suggest that a range of hearing problems, including speech-in-noise deficits, may arise as a result of deafferentation of auditory nerve fibres (ANFs). Moreover, it is likely that neural adaptive processes, such as adaptive coding, contribute to the processing of signals in a noisy background. We hypothesize that A) deafferentation of high-threshold ANFs decreases understanding of speech in noise due to a degraded representation of the signal and B) that hearing loss decreases the capability for adaptive coding, resulting in a reduced capacity of neurons to average out mean background intensities which may be critical to separate speech from noise. To test these hypotheses, we will employ an animal model to study the neural representation of speech in noise, how it is affected by hearing loss, and the role of adaptation to sound level statistics in the central auditory system. Specific types of hearing loss will be induced using noise exposure, ototoxic drugs, or earplugs. We will then investigate the effects of these manipulations using single unit as well as intracellular recordings in the inferior colliculus. We will analyze a) how well speech tokens can be discriminated based on the neuronal activity, b) the adaptive coding capability of the neurons and how it is related to speech disciminability, and c) the influence of hearing loss on these measures. This will provide powerful insight about the peripheral and central factors contributing to speech in noise performance.
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