Objective: The aim of this study was to evaluate the feasibility of a virtual reality-based spatial hearing training protocol in bilateral cochlear implant (CI) users and to provide pilot data on the impact of this training on different qualities of hearing.
Design: Twelve bilateral CI adults aged between 19 and 69 followed an intensive 10-week rehabilitation program comprised eight virtual reality training sessions (two per week) interspersed with several evaluation sessions (2 weeks before training started, after four and eight training sessions, and 1 month after the end of training). During each 45-minute training session, participants localized a sound source whose position varied in azimuth and/or in elevation. At the start of each trial, CI users received no information about sound location, but after each response, feedback was given to enable error correction. Participants were divided into two groups: a multisensory feedback group (audiovisual spatial cue) and an unisensory group (visual spatial cue) who only received feedback in a wholly intact sensory modality. Training benefits were measured at each evaluation point using three tests: 3D sound localization in virtual reality, the French Matrix test, and the Speech, Spatial and other Qualities of Hearing questionnaire.
Results: The training was well accepted and all participants attended the whole rehabilitation program. Four training sessions spread across 2 weeks were insufficient to induce significant performance changes, whereas performance on all three tests improved after eight training sessions. Front-back confusions decreased from 32% to 14.1% ( p = 0.017); speech recognition threshold score from 1.5 dB to -0.7 dB signal-to-noise ratio ( p = 0.029) and eight CI users successfully achieved a negative signal-to-noise ratio. One month after the end of structured training, these performance improvements were still present, and quality of life was significantly improved for both self-reports of sound localization (from 5.3 to 6.7, p = 0.015) and speech understanding (from 5.2 to 5.9, p = 0.048).
Conclusions: This pilot study shows the feasibility and potential clinical relevance of this type of intervention involving a sensorial immersive environment and could pave the way for more systematic rehabilitation programs after cochlear implantation.
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