Objective: Cochlear implants (CIs) do not automatically restore speech recognition for postlingually deafened adults. Average word recognition remains at 60%, and enormous variability exists. Understanding speech requires knowledge of phonemic codes, the basic sound units of language. Hearing loss may result in degeneration of these long-term mental representations (i.e., "phonemic sensitivity"), and CI use may not adequately restore those representations. This investigation examined whether phonemic sensitivity is degraded for CI users, and whether this degradation results in poorer word recognition.
Study design: Thirty adults with CIs and 20 normal-hearing controls underwent testing.
Methods: Participants were assessed for word recognition in quiet, along with tasks of phonemic sensitivity using an audiovisual format to maximize recognition: initial consonant choice (ICC), in which they selected the word with the same starting sound as a target word, final consonant choice (FCC), in which they selected the word with the same ending sound, and backwards words, in which they repeated phonemes comprising words in backwards order.
Results: Phonemic sensitivity was poorer for CI users than for normal-hearing controls for ICC and FCC. For CI users, ICC and FCC predicted 25% and 40% of variance in word recognition, respectively. Longer duration of CI use did not lead to greater restoration in phonemic sensitivity.
Conclusion: Even for adults who presumably had developed refined phonemic representations, hearing loss can degrade those representations, which results in poorer word recognition. Cochlear implants do not adequately restore those representations. Findings suggest the need for rehabilitative efforts to improve CI users' phonemic sensitivity.