Do individual differences in working memory predict speech-in-noise intelligibility in normal hearers?
With the advent of cognitive hearing science, increased attention has been given to individual differences in cognitive functioning and their explanatory power in accounting for inter-listener variability in understanding speech in noise (SiN). The psychological construct that has received most interest is working memory (WM), representing the ability to simultaneously store and process information. Common lore and theoretical models assume that WM-based processes subtend speech processing in adverse perceptual conditions, such as those associated with hearing loss and background noise. Empirical evidence confirms the association between WM capacity (WMC) and SiN identification in older hearing-impaired listeners.
To assess whether WMC also plays a role when listeners without hearing loss process speech in acoustically adverse conditions, we surveyed published and unpublished studies in which the Reading-Span test (a widely used measure of WMC) was administered in conjunction with a measure of SiN identification. The survey revealed little or no evidence for an association between WMC and SiN performance.
We also analysed new data from 132 normal-hearing participants sampled from across the adult lifespan (18 to 91 years), for a relationship between Reading-Span scores and identification of matrix sentences in noise. Performance on both tasks declined with age, and correlated moderately even after controlling for the effects of age and audibility (r = 0.39, p ≤ 0.001, one-tailed). However, separate analyses for different age groups revealed that the correlation was only significant for middle-aged and older groups but not for the young participants (< 40 years).
A possible explanation for this increasing cognitive involvement with age is the accumulation of age-related deficits in supra-liminary auditory processing (e.g. sensitivity to temporal-fine-structure and temporal-envelope cues; Füllgrabe, 2013; Füllgrabe et al., 2015), resulting in under-defined and degraded internal representations of the speech signal, calling for WM-based compensatory mechanisms to aid speech identification.
Füllgrabe, C. (2013). Age-dependent changes in temporal-fine-structure processing in the absence of peripheral hearing loss. American Journal of Audiology, 22(2), 313-315.
Füllgrabe, C., Moore, B. C., & Stone, M. A. (2015). Age-group differences in speech identification despite matched audiometrically normal hearing: contributions from auditory temporal processing and cognition. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 6, 347.
Work supported by the Medical Research Council (grant number U135097130) and the Oticon Foundation (Denmark).