Individuals with sensorineural hearing loss have difficulty understanding speech, especially in background noise. This deficit remains even when audibility is restored through amplification, suggesting that mechanisms beyond a reduction in peripheral sensitivity contribute to the perceptual difficulties associated with hearing loss. Given that normal-hearing musicians have enhanced auditory perceptual skills, including speech-in-noise perception, coupled with heightened subcortical responses to speech, we aimed to determine whether similar advantages could be observed in middle-aged adults with hearing loss. Results indicate that musicians with hearing loss, despite self-perceptions of average performance for understanding speech in noise, have a greater ability to hear in noise relative to nonmusicians. This is accompanied by more robust subcortical encoding of sound (e.g., stimulus-to-response correlations and response consistency) as well as more resilient neural responses to speech in the presence of background noise (e.g., neural timing). Musicians with hearing loss also demonstrate unique neural signatures of spectral encoding relative to nonmusicians: enhanced neural encoding of the speech-sound's fundamental frequency but not of its upper harmonics. This stands in contrast to previous outcomes in normal-hearing musicians, who have enhanced encoding of the harmonics but not the fundamental frequency. Taken together, our data suggest that although hearing loss modifies a musician's spectral encoding of speech, the musician advantage for perceiving speech in noise persists in a hearing-impaired population by adaptively strengthening underlying neural mechanisms for speech-in-noise perception.
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