Aims: People with impaired hearing often have difficulties in hearing sounds in a noisy background. This ability relies partly on the capacity of the auditory system to process temporal information in the sound signal. In this study we examined the relationships between perceptual sensitivity to temporal fine-structure cues, brainstem encoding of complex harmonic and amplitude-modulated sounds, and the ability to understand speech in noise. Understanding these links will allow the development of an objective measure that could be used to detect changes in functional hearing before the onset of permanent threshold shifts.
Methods: We measured TFS sensitivity and speech in noise performance (QuickSIN) behaviourally in 34 normally-hearing adults with ages ranging from 18 to 34 years. We recorded brainstem responses to complex harmonic sounds and a 4000 Hz carrier signal modulated at 110 Hz. We performed cross-correlations between the stimulus waveforms and scalp-recorded brainstem responses to generate a simple measure of stimulus encoding accuracy, and correlated these measures with age, TFS sensitivity and speech-in-noise performance.
Results: Speech-in-noise performance was negatively correlated with TFS sensitivity and age. TFS sensitivity was also positively correlated with stimulus encoding accuracy for the complex harmonic stimulus, while increasing age was associated with lower stimulus encoding accuracy for the modulated tone stimulus.
Conclusions: The results show that even in a group of people with normal hearing, increasing age was associated with reduced speech understanding, reduced TFS sensitivity, and reduced stimulus encoding accuracy (for the modulated tone stimulus). People with good TFS sensitivity also generally had more faithful brainstem encoding of a complex harmonic tone.