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, 9 (1), 16771

'Normal' Hearing Thresholds and Fundamental Auditory Grouping Processes Predict Difficulties With Speech-In-Noise Perception


'Normal' Hearing Thresholds and Fundamental Auditory Grouping Processes Predict Difficulties With Speech-In-Noise Perception

Emma Holmes et al. Sci Rep.


Understanding speech when background noise is present is a critical everyday task that varies widely among people. A key challenge is to understand why some people struggle with speech-in-noise perception, despite having clinically normal hearing. Here, we developed new figure-ground tests that require participants to extract a coherent tone pattern from a stochastic background of tones. These tests dissociated variability in speech-in-noise perception related to mechanisms for detecting static (same-frequency) patterns and those for tracking patterns that change frequency over time. In addition, elevated hearing thresholds that are widely considered to be 'normal' explained significant variance in speech-in-noise perception, independent of figure-ground perception. Overall, our results demonstrate that successful speech-in-noise perception is related to audiometric thresholds, fundamental grouping of static acoustic patterns, and tracking of acoustic sources that change in frequency. Crucially, speech-in-noise deficits are better assessed by measuring central (grouping) processes alongside audiometric thresholds.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors declare no competing interests.


Figure 1
Figure 1
Schematic of design. (A) Left panel: Example spectrogram of one target stimulus for each task (figure or speech). Right panel: Schematic of response screen for each task. (B) Example spectrum of the ‘ground’ tones used in the figure-ground discrimination tasks.
Figure 2
Figure 2
Audiometric thresholds at 250–8000 Hz, recorded in decibels hearing level (dB HL). Black line shows mean thresholds across the group (N = 97). Grey lines show thresholds for individual participants, and orange lines show thresholds for the 8 participants who had audiometric thresholds worse than 20 dB at 4 or 8 kHz, who were excluded from the correlation analysis.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Correlations between thresholds for speech-in-babble and audiometric thresholds or thresholds for the figure-ground tasks. (A) Bar graph displaying r-values for Pearson’s correlations with speech-in-babble thresholds. Error bars display 95% between-subjects confidence intervals for the correlation coefficients. The grey shaded box illustrates the noise ceiling, calculated as the (95% between-subjects confidence interval associated with the) correlation between two different blocks of the speech in noise task. Asterisks indicate the significance level of the correlation coefficient (*p < 0.050; **p < 0.010; ***p < 0.001). (B) Scatter plots associated with each of the correlations displayed in Panel A. Each dot displays the results of an individual participant. Solid grey lines indicate the least squares lines of best fit (note that the error bars in Panel A display the normalised confidence intervals for these regressions). [dB HL: decibels hearing level; TMR: target-to-masker ratio.] See also Supplemental Figure.

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