Current models successfully describe the auditory cortical response to natural sounds with a set of spectro-temporal features. However, these models have hardly been linked to the ill-understood neurobiological changes that occur in the aging auditory cortex. Modelling the hemodynamic response to a rich natural sound mixture in N = 64 listeners of varying age, we here show that in older listeners' auditory cortex, the key feature of temporal rate is represented with a markedly broader tuning. This loss of temporal selectivity is most prominent in primary auditory cortex and planum temporale, with no such changes in adjacent auditory or other brain areas. Amongst older listeners, we observe a direct relationship between chronological age and temporal-rate tuning, unconfounded by auditory acuity or model goodness of fit. In line with senescent neural dedifferentiation more generally, our results highlight decreased selectivity to temporal information as a hallmark of the aging auditory cortex.
Keywords: functional mri; healthy aging; hearing loss; human; neuroscience; presbycusis; spectro-temporal modulations; temporal rate coding.
It can often be difficult for an older person to understand what someone is saying, particularly in noisy environments. Exactly how and why this age-related change occurs is not clear, but it is thought that older individuals may become less able to tune in to certain features of sound. Newer tools are making it easier to study age-related changes in hearing in the brain. For example, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can allow scientists to ‘see’ and measure how certain parts of the brain react to different features of sound. Using fMRI data, researchers can compare how younger and older people process speech. They can also track how speech processing in the brain changes with age. Now, Erb et al. show that older individuals have a harder time tuning into the rhythm of speech. In the experiments, 64 people between the ages of 18 to 78 were asked to listen to speech in a noisy setting while they underwent fMRI. The researchers then tested a computer model using the data. In the older individuals, the brain’s tuning to the timing or rhythm of speech was broader, while the younger participants were more able to finely tune into this feature of sound. The older a person was the less able their brain was to distinguish rhythms in speech, likely making it harder to understand what had been said. This hearing change likely occurs because brain cells become less specialised overtime, which can contribute to many kinds of age-related cognitive decline. This new information about why understanding speech becomes more difficult with age may help scientists develop better hearing aids that are individualised to a person’s specific needs.
© 2020, Erb et al.