Objectives: Understanding speech in adverse listening environments is challenging for older adults. Individual differences in pure tone averages and working memory are known to be critical indicators of speech in noise comprehension. Recent studies have suggested that tracking of the speech envelope in cortical oscillations <8 Hz may be an important mechanism related to speech comprehension by segmenting speech into words and phrases (delta, 1 to 4 Hz) or phonemes and syllables (theta, 4 to 8 Hz). The purpose of this study was to investigate the extent to which individual differences in pure tone averages, working memory, and cortical tracking of the speech envelope relate to speech in noise comprehension in older adults.
Design: Cortical tracking of continuous speech was assessed using electroencephalography in older adults (60 to 80 years). Participants listened to speech in quiet and in the presence of noise (time-reversed speech) and answered comprehension questions. Participants completed Forward Digit Span and Backward Digit Span as measures of working memory, and pure tone averages were collected. An index of reduction in noise (RIN) was calculated by normalizing the difference between raw cortical tracking in quiet and in noise.
Results: Comprehension question performance was greater for speech in quiet than for speech in noise. The relationship between RIN and speech in noise comprehension was assessed while controlling for the effects of individual differences in pure tone averages and working memory. Delta band RIN correlated with speech in noise comprehension, while theta band RIN did not.
Conclusions: Cortical tracking by delta oscillations is robust to the effects of noise. These findings demonstrate that the magnitude of delta band RIN relates to individual differences in speech in noise comprehension in older adults. Delta band RIN may serve as a neural metric of speech in noise comprehension beyond the effects of pure tone averages and working memory.
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