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Concept: Hearing


Recent neuroscience research suggests that tinnitus may reflect synaptic loss in the cochlea that does not express in the audiogram but leads to neural changes in auditory pathways that reduce sound level tolerance (SLT). Adolescents (N = 170) completed a questionnaire addressing their prior experience with tinnitus, potentially risky listening habits, and sensitivity to ordinary sounds, followed by psychoacoustic measurements in a sound booth. Among all adolescents 54.7% reported by questionnaire that they had previously experienced tinnitus, while 28.8% heard tinnitus in the booth. Psychoacoustic properties of tinnitus measured in the sound booth corresponded with those of chronic adult tinnitus sufferers. Neither hearing thresholds (≤15 dB HL to 16 kHz) nor otoacoustic emissions discriminated between adolescents reporting or not reporting tinnitus in the sound booth, but loudness discomfort levels (a psychoacoustic measure of SLT) did so, averaging 11.3 dB lower in adolescents experiencing tinnitus in the acoustic chamber. Although risky listening habits were near universal, the teenagers experiencing tinnitus and reduced SLT tended to be more protective of their hearing. Tinnitus and reduced SLT could be early indications of a vulnerability to hidden synaptic injury that is prevalent among adolescents and expressed following exposure to high level environmental sounds.

Concepts: Auditory system, Acoustics, Ultrasound, Ear, Sound, Audiogram, Hearing


Older adults frequently complain that while they can hear a person talking, they cannot understand what is being said; this difficulty is exacerbated by background noise. Peripheral hearing loss cannot fully account for this age-related decline in speech-in-noise ability, as declines in central processing also contribute to this problem. Given that musicians have enhanced speech-in-noise perception, we aimed to define the effects of musical experience on subcortical responses to speech and speech-in-noise perception in middle-aged adults. Results reveal that musicians have enhanced neural encoding of speech in quiet and noisy settings. Enhancements include faster neural response timing, higher neural response consistency, more robust encoding of speech harmonics, and greater neural precision. Taken together, we suggest that musical experience provides perceptual benefits in an aging population by strengthening the underlying neural pathways necessary for the accurate representation of important temporal and spectral features of sound.

Concepts: Understanding, Middle age, Sense, Acoustics, Aging, Sound, Hearing, Music


Extensive research shows that inter-talker variability (i.e., changing the talker) affects recognition memory for speech signals. However, relatively little is known about the consequences of intra-talker variability (i.e. changes in speaking style within a talker) on the encoding of speech signals in memory. It is well established that speakers can modulate the characteristics of their own speech and produce a listener-oriented, intelligibility-enhancing speaking style in response to communication demands (e.g., when speaking to listeners with hearing impairment or non-native speakers of the language). Here we conducted two experiments to examine the role of speaking style variation in spoken language processing. First, we examined the extent to which clear speech provided benefits in challenging listening environments (i.e. speech-in-noise). Second, we compared recognition memory for sentences produced in conversational and clear speaking styles. In both experiments, semantically normal and anomalous sentences were included to investigate the role of higher-level linguistic information in the processing of speaking style variability. The results show that acoustic-phonetic modifications implemented in listener-oriented speech lead to improved speech recognition in challenging listening conditions and, crucially, to a substantial enhancement in recognition memory for sentences.

Concepts: Linguistics, Language, Grammar, Audiogram, Hearing, Speech recognition, Speech, Speech processing


Auditory training involves active listening to auditory stimuli and aims to improve performance in auditory tasks. As such, auditory training is a potential intervention for the management of people with hearing loss.

Concepts: Randomized controlled trial, Auditory system, Hearing impairment, Audiogram, Hearing, Active listening


Dietary supplements consisting of beta-carotene (precursor to vitamin A), vitamins C and E and the mineral magnesium (ACEMg) can be beneficial for reducing hearing loss due to aminoglycosides and overstimulation. This regimen also slowed progression of deafness for a boy with GJB2 (CONNEXIN 26) mutations. To assess the potential for treating GJB2 and other forms of hereditary hearing loss with ACEMg, we tested the influence of ACEMg on the cochlea and hearing of mouse models for two human mutations: GJB2, the leading cause of childhood deafness, and DIAPH3, a cause of auditory neuropathy. One group of mice modeling GJB2 (Gjb2-CKO) received ACEMg diet starting shortly after they were weaned (4 weeks) until 16 weeks of age. Another group of Gjb2-CKO mice received ACEMg in utero and after weaning. The ACEMg diet was given to mice modeling DIAPH3 (Diap3-Tg) after weaning (4 weeks) until 12 weeks of age. Control groups received food pellets without the ACEMg supplement. Hearing thresholds measured by auditory brainstem response were significantly better for Gjb2-CKO mice fed ACEMg than for the control diet group. In contrast, Diap3-Tg mice displayed worse thresholds than controls. These results indicate that ACEMg supplementation can influence the progression of genetic hearing loss.

Concepts: Vitamin, Dietary supplement, Cochlea, Hearing impairment, Cochlear implant, Audiogram, Hearing


Newborn screening is a public health program that benefits 4 million U.S. infants every year by enabling early detection of serious conditions, thus affording the opportunity for timely intervention to optimize outcomes (1). States and other U.S. jurisdictions decide whether and how to regulate newborn screening practices. Most newborn screening is done through laboratory analyses of dried bloodspot specimens collected from newborns. Point-of-care newborn screening is typically performed before discharge from the birthing facility. The Recommended Uniform Screening Panel includes two point-of-care conditions for newborn screening: hearing loss and critical congenital heart disease (CCHD). The objectives of point-of-care screening for these two conditions are early identification and intervention to improve neurodevelopment, most notably language and related skills among infants with permanent hearing loss, and to prevent death or severe disability resulting from delayed diagnosis of CCHD. Universal screening for hearing loss using otoacoustic emissions or automated auditory brainstem response was endorsed by the Joint Committee on Infant Hearing in 2000 and 2007* and was incorporated in the first Recommended Uniform Screening Panel in 2005. Screening for CCHD using pulse oximetry was recommended by the Advisory Committee on Heritable Disorders in Newborns and Children in 2010 based on an evidence review(†) and was added to the Recommended Uniform Screening Panel in 2011.(§).

Concepts: Childbirth, Infant, Epidemiology, Auditory brainstem response, Otoacoustic emission, Infant mortality, Pediatrics, Hearing


Recent work suggests that hair cells are not the most vulnerable elements in the inner ear; rather, it is the synapses between hair cells and cochlear nerve terminals that degenerate first in the aging or noise-exposed ear. This primary neural degeneration does not affect hearing thresholds, but likely contributes to problems understanding speech in difficult listening environments, and may be important in the generation of tinnitus and/or hyperacusis. To look for signs of cochlear synaptopathy in humans, we recruited college students and divided them into low-risk and high-risk groups based on self-report of noise exposure and use of hearing protection. Cochlear function was assessed by otoacoustic emissions and click-evoked electrocochleography; hearing was assessed by behavioral audiometry and word recognition with or without noise or time compression and reverberation. Both groups had normal thresholds at standard audiometric frequencies, however, the high-risk group showed significant threshold elevation at high frequencies (10-16 kHz), consistent with early stages of noise damage. Electrocochleography showed a significant difference in the ratio between the waveform peaks generated by hair cells (Summating Potential; SP) vs. cochlear neurons (Action Potential; AP), i.e. the SP/AP ratio, consistent with selective neural loss. The high-risk group also showed significantly poorer performance on word recognition in noise or with time compression and reverberation, and reported heightened reactions to sound consistent with hyperacusis. These results suggest that the SP/AP ratio may be useful in the diagnosis of “hidden hearing loss” and that, as suggested by animal models, the noise-induced loss of cochlear nerve synapses leads to deficits in hearing abilities in difficult listening situations, despite the presence of normal thresholds at standard audiometric frequencies.

Concepts: Neuron, Action potential, Auditory system, Cochlea, Ear, Tinnitus, Sound, Hearing


Spatial release from masking (SRM) occurs when spatial separation between a signal and masker decreases masked thresholds. The mechanically-coupled ears of Ormia ochracea are specialized for hyperacute directional hearing, but the possible role of SRM, or whether such specializations exhibit limitations for sound source segregation, is unknown. We recorded phonotaxis to a cricket song masked by band-limited noise. With a masker, response thresholds increased and localization was diverted away from the signal and masker. Increased separation from 6° to 90° did not decrease response thresholds or improve localization accuracy, thus SRM does not operate in this range of spatial separations. Tympanal vibrations and auditory nerve responses reveal that localization errors were consistent with changes in peripheral coding of signal location and flies localized towards the ear with better signal detection. Our results demonstrate that, in a mechanically coupled auditory system, specialization for directional hearing does not contribute to source segregation.

Concepts: Auditory system, Ear, Sound, Hearing, Sound localization, Ormia ochracea


To understand why human sensitivity for complex objects is so low, we study how word identification combines eye and ear or parts of a word (features, letters, syllables). Our observers identify printed and spoken words presented concurrently or separately. When researchers measure threshold (energy of the faintest visible or audible signal) they may report either sensitivity (one over the human threshold) or efficiency (ratio of the best possible threshold to the human threshold). When the best possible algorithm identifies an object (like a word) in noise, its threshold is independent of how many parts the object has. But, with human observers, efficiency depends on the task. In some tasks, human observers combine parts efficiently, needing hardly more energy to identify an object with more parts. In other tasks, they combine inefficiently, needing energy nearly proportional to the number of parts, over a 60∶1 range. Whether presented to eye or ear, efficiency for detecting a short sinusoid (tone or grating) with few features is a substantial 20%, while efficiency for identifying a word with many features is merely 1%. Why? We show that the low human sensitivity for words is a cost of combining their many parts. We report a dichotomy between inefficient combining of adjacent features and efficient combining across senses. Joining our results with a survey of the cue-combination literature reveals that cues combine efficiently only if they are perceived as aspects of the same object. Observers give different names to adjacent letters in a word, and combine them inefficiently. Observers give the same name to a word’s image and sound, and combine them efficiently. The brain’s machinery optimally combines only cues that are perceived as originating from the same object. Presumably such cues each find their own way through the brain to arrive at the same object representation.

Concepts: Psychology, Brain, Cognition, Sense, Sound, Identification, Hearing


There have been concerns about increasing levels of hearing impairment in children and adolescents, especially in relation to noise exposure, because even mild levels of hearing loss can affect educational outcomes.

Concepts: Cochlea, Hearing impairment, Tinnitus, Audiogram, Hearing, Noise pollution, Hearing loss, Loud music