Effects of sensorineural hearing loss on formant-frequency discrimination: Measurements and models
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This study concerns the effect of hearing loss on discrimination of formant frequencies in vowels. In the response of the healthy ear to a harmonic sound, auditory-nerve (AN) rate functions fluctuate at the fundamental frequency, F0. Responses of inner-hair-cells (IHCs) tuned near spectral peaks are captured (or dominated) by a single harmonic, resulting in lower fluctuation depths than responses of IHCs tuned between spectral peaks. Therefore, the depth of neural fluctuations (NFs) varies along the tonotopic axis and encodes spectral peaks, including formant frequencies of vowels. This NF code is robust across a wide range of sound levels and in background noise. The NF profile is converted into a rate-place representation in the auditory midbrain, wherein neurons are sensitive to low-frequency fluctuations. The NF code is vulnerable to sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL) because capture depends upon saturation of IHCs, and thus the interaction of cochlear gain with IHC transduction. In this study, formant-frequency discrimination limens (DLFFs) were estimated for listeners with normal hearing or mild to moderate SNHL. The F0 was fixed at 100 Hz, and formant peaks were either aligned with harmonic frequencies or placed between harmonics. Formant peak frequencies were 600 and 2000 Hz, in the range of first and second formants of several vowels. The difficulty of the task was varied by changing formant bandwidth to modulate the contrast in the NF profile. Results were compared to predictions from model auditory-nerve and inferior colliculus (IC) neurons, with listeners' audiograms used to individualize the AN model. Correlations between DLFFs, audiometric thresholds near the formant frequencies, age, and scores on the Quick speech-in-noise test are reported. SNHL had a strong effect on DLFF for the second formant frequency (F2), but relatively small effect on DLFF for the first formant (F1). The IC model appropriately predicted substantial threshold elevations for changes in F2 as a function of SNHL and little effect of SNHL on thresholds for changes in F1.
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