Objectives: To confirm an increased susceptibility to informational masking among individuals with single-sided deafness (SSD). To demonstrate a reduction in informational masking when SSD is treated with an integrated bone conduction hearing aid (IBC). To identify the acoustic cues that contribute to IBC-aided masking release. To determine the effects of device experience on the IBC advantage.
Design: Informational masking was evaluated with the coordinate-response measure. Participants performed the task by reporting color and number coordinates that changed randomly within target sentences. The target sentences were presented in free field accompanied by zero to three distracting sentences. Target and distracting sentences were spoken by different talkers and originated from different source locations, creating two sources of information for auditory streaming. Susceptibility to informational masking was inferred from the error rates of unaided SSD patients relative to normal controls. These baseline measures were derived by testing inexperienced IBC users without the device on the day of their initial fitting. The benefits of IBC-aided listening were assessed by measuring the aided performance of users who had at least 3 months’ device experience. The acoustic basis of the listening advantage was isolated by correlating response errors with the voice pitch and location of distracting sentences. The effects of learning on cue effectiveness were evaluated by comparing the error rates of experienced and inexperienced users.
Results: Unaided SSD participants (inexperienced users) performed as well as normal controls when tested without distracting sentences but produced significantly higher error rates when tested with distracting sentences. Most errors involved responding with coordinates that were contained in distracting sentences. This increased susceptibility to informational masking was significantly reduced when experienced IBC users were tested with the device. The listening advantage was most strongly correlated with the availability of voice pitch cues, although performance was also influenced by the location of distracting sentences. Directional asymmetries appear to be dictated by location-dependent cues that are derived from the distinctive transmission characteristics of IBC stimulation. Experienced users made better use of these cues than inexperienced users.
Conclusions: These results suggest that informational masking is a significant source of communication impairment among individuals with SSD. Despite the lateralization of auditory function, unaided SSD subjects experience informational masking when distractors occur in either the deaf or normal spatial hemifield. Restoration of aural sensitivity in the deaf hemifield with an IBC enhances speech intelligibility under complex listening conditions, presumably by providing additional sound-segregation cues that are derived from voice pitch and spatial location. The optimal use of these cues is not immediate, but a significant listening advantage is observed after 3 months of unstructured use.