Objectives: Recent research suggests that older listeners may have difficulty processing information related to the fundamental frequency (F0) of voiced speech. In this study, the focus was on the mechanisms that may underlie this reduced ability. We examined whether increased age resulted in decreased ability to perceive F0 using fine-structure cues provided by the harmonic structure of voiced speech sounds or cues provided by high-rate envelope fluctuations (periodicity).
Design: Younger listeners with normal hearing and older listeners with normal to near-normal hearing completed two tasks of F0 perception. In the first task (steady state F0), the fundamental frequency difference limen (F0DL) was measured adaptively for synthetic vowel stimuli. In the second task (time-varying F0), listeners relied on variations in F0 to judge intonation of synthetic diphthongs. For both tasks, three processing conditions were created: eight-channel vocoding that preserved periodicity cues to F0; a simulated electroacoustic stimulation condition, which consisted of high-frequency vocoder processing combined with a low-pass-filtered portion, and offered both periodicity and fine-structure cues to F0; and an unprocessed condition.
Results: F0 difference limens for steady state vowel sounds and the ability to discern rising and falling intonations were significantly worse in the older subjects compared with the younger subjects. For both older and younger listeners, scores were lowest for the vocoded condition, and there was no difference in scores between the unprocessed and electroacoustic simulation conditions.
Conclusions: Older listeners had difficulty using periodicity cues to obtain information related to talker fundamental frequency. However, performance was improved by combining periodicity cues with (low frequency) acoustic information, and that strategy should be considered in individuals who are appropriate candidates for such processing. For cochlear implant candidates, this effect might be achieved by partial electrode insertion providing acoustic stimulation in the low frequencies or by the combination of a traditional implant in one ear and a hearing aid in the opposite ear.