The ability to understand speech is significantly degraded by aging, particularly in noisy environments. One way that older adults cope with this hearing difficulty is through the use of contextual cues. Several behavioral studies have shown that older adults are better at following a conversation when the target speech signal has high contextual content or when the background distractor is not meaningful. Specifically, older adults gain significant benefit in focusing on and understanding speech if the background is spoken by a talker in a language that is not comprehensible to them (i.e. a foreign language). To better understand the neural mechanisms underlying this benefit in older adults, we investigated aging effects on midbrain and cortical encoding of speech when in the presence of a single competing talker speaking in language that is meaningful or meaningless to the listener (i.e., English vs. Dutch). Our results suggest that neural processing is strongly affected by the informational content of noise. Specifically, older listeners' cortical responses to the attended speech signal are less deteriorated when the competing speech signal is an incomprehensible language than when it is their native language. Conversely, temporal processing in the midbrain is affected by different backgrounds only during rapid changes in speech, and only in younger listeners. Additionally, we found that cognitive decline is associated with an increase in cortical envelope tracking, suggesting an age-related over (or inefficient) use of cognitive resources that may explain their difficulty in processing speech targets while trying to ignore interfering noise.
- Speech in noise
- Copyright © 2016, Journal of Neurophysiology