Listening effort may be reduced when hearing aids improve access to the acoustic signal. However, this possibility is difficult to evaluate because many neuroimaging methods used to measure listening effort are incompatible with hearing aid use. Functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which can be used to measure the concentration of oxygen in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), appears to be well-suited to this application. The first aim of this study was to establish whether fNIRS could measure cognitive effort during listening in older adults who use hearing aids. The second aim was to use fNIRS to determine if listening effort, a form of cognitive effort, differed depending on whether or not hearing aids were used when listening to sound presented at 35 dB SL (flat gain). Sixteen older adults who were experienced hearing aid users completed an auditory n-back task and a visual n-back task; both tasks were completed with and without hearing aids. We found that PFC oxygenation increased with n-back working memory demand in both modalities, supporting the use of fNIRS to measure cognitive effort during listening in this population. PFC oxygenation was weakly and nonsignificantly correlated with self-reported listening effort and reaction time, respectively, suggesting that PFC oxygenation assesses a dimension of listening effort that differs from these other measures. Furthermore, the extent to which hearing aids reduced PFC oxygenation in the left lateral PFC was positively correlated with age and pure-tone average thresholds. The implications of these findings as well as future directions are discussed.
Keywords: aging; hearing loss; n-back task; neuroimaging; working memory.