EFFECTS OF AGING ON MIDBRAIN AND CORTICAL SPEECH-IN-NOISE PROCESSING
Simon, Jonathan Z.
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Older adults frequently report that they can hear what they have been told but cannot understand the meaning. This is particularly true in noisy conditions, where the additional challenge of suppressing irrelevant noise (i.e. a competing talker) adds another layer of difficulty to their speech understanding. Hearing aids improve speech perception in quiet, but their success in noisy environments has been modest, suggesting that peripheral hearing loss may not be the only factor in the older adult’s perceptual difficulties. Recent animal studies have shown that auditory synapses and cells undergo significant age-related changes that could impact the integrity of temporal processing in the central auditory system. Psychoacoustic studies carried out in humans have also shown that hearing loss can explain the decline in older adults’ performance in quiet compared to younger adults, but these psychoacoustic measurements are not accurate in describing auditory deficits in noisy conditions. These results would suggest that temporal auditory processing deficits could play an important role in explaining the reduced ability of older adults to process speech in noisy environments. The goals of this dissertation were to understand how age affects neural auditory mechanisms and at which level in the auditory system these changes are particularly relevant for explaining speech-in-noise problems. Specifically, we used non-invasive neuroimaging techniques to tap into the midbrain and the cortex in order to analyze how auditory stimuli are processed in younger (our standard) and older adults. We will also attempt to investigate a possible interaction between processing carried out in the midbrain and cortex.