Neural tracking of attended versus ignored speech is differentially affected by hearing loss

J Neurophysiol. 2017 Jan 1;117(1):18-27. doi: 10.1152/jn.00527.2016. Epub 2016 Oct 5.


Hearing loss manifests as a reduced ability to understand speech, particularly in multitalker situations. In these situations, younger normal-hearing listeners' brains are known to track attended speech through phase-locking of neural activity to the slow-varying envelope of the speech. This study investigates how hearing loss, compensated by hearing aids, affects the neural tracking of the speech-onset envelope in elderly participants with varying degree of hearing loss (n = 27, 62-86 yr; hearing thresholds 11-73 dB hearing level). In an active listening task, a to-be-attended audiobook (signal) was presented either in quiet or against a competing to-be-ignored audiobook (noise) presented at three individualized signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs). The neural tracking of the to-be-attended and to-be-ignored speech was quantified through the cross-correlation of the electroencephalogram (EEG) and the temporal envelope of speech. We primarily investigated the effects of hearing loss and SNR on the neural envelope tracking. First, we found that elderly hearing-impaired listeners' neural responses reliably track the envelope of to-be-attended speech more than to-be-ignored speech. Second, hearing loss relates to the neural tracking of to-be-ignored speech, resulting in a weaker differential neural tracking of to-be-attended vs. to-be-ignored speech in listeners with worse hearing. Third, neural tracking of to-be-attended speech increased with decreasing background noise. Critically, the beneficial effect of reduced noise on neural speech tracking decreased with stronger hearing loss. In sum, our results show that a common sensorineural processing deficit, i.e., hearing loss, interacts with central attention mechanisms and reduces the differential tracking of attended and ignored speech.

New & noteworthy: The present study investigates the effect of hearing loss in older listeners on the neural tracking of competing speech. Interestingly, we observed that whereas internal degradation (hearing loss) relates to the neural tracking of ignored speech, external sound degradation (ratio between attended and ignored speech; signal-to-noise ratio) relates to tracking of attended speech. This provides the first evidence for hearing loss affecting the ability to neurally track speech.

Keywords: attention; cross-correlation; electroencephalography; hearing loss; neural tracking; speech-onset envelope.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Threshold / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Female
  • Hearing Loss / pathology*
  • Hearing Loss / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychoacoustics
  • Signal-To-Noise Ratio
  • Speech / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*