This study investigated the effects of decreased audibility in low-frequency spectral regions, produced by low-pass noise masking, on cortical event-related potentials (ERPs) to the speech sounds /ba/ and /da/.
The speech sounds were presented to normal-hearing adults (N = 10) at 65- and 80-dB peak-to-peak equivalent SPL while they were engaged in an active condition (pressing a button to deviant sounds) and a passive condition (ignoring the stimuli and reading a book). Broadband masking noise was simultaneously presented at an intensity sufficient to mask the response to the 65-dB speech sounds and subsequently low-pass filtered. The conditions were quiet (no masking), low-pass noise cutoff frequencies of 250, 500, 1000, 2000, and 4000 Hz, and broadband noise.
As the cutoff frequency of the low-pass noise masker was raised, ERP latencies increased and amplitudes decreased. The low-pass noise affected N1 differently than the other ERP or behavioral measures, particularly for responses to 80-dB speech stimuli. N1 showed a smaller decrease in amplitude and a smaller increase in latency compared with the other measures. Further, the cutoff frequency where changes first occurred was different for N1. For 80-dB stimuli, N1 amplitudes showed significant changes when the low-pass noise masker cutoff was raised to 4000 Hz. In contrast, d′, MMN, N2, and P3 amplitudes did not change significantly until the low-pass noise masker was raised to 2000 Hz. N1 latencies showed significant changes when the low-pass noise masker was raised to 1000 Hz, whereas RT, MMN, N2, and P3 latencies did not change significantly until the low-pass noise masker was raised to 2000 Hz. No significant differences in response amplitudes were seen across the hemispheres (electrode sites C3M versus C4M) in quiet, or in masking noise.
These results indicate that decreased audibility, resulting from the masking, affects N1 in a differential manner compared with MMN, N2, P3, and behavioral measures. N1 indexes the presence of audible stimulus energy, being present when speech sounds are audible, whether or not they are discriminable. MMN indexes stimulus discrimination at a pre-attentive level. It was present only when behavioral measures indicated the ability to differentiate the speech sounds. N2 and P3 also were present only when the speech sounds were behaviorally discriminated. N2 and P3 index stimulus discrimination at a conscious level. These cortical ERP in low-pass noise studies provide insight into the changes in brain processes and behavioral performance that occur when audibility is reduced, such as with low frequency hearing loss.