Environmental sound perception serves an important ecological function by providing listeners with information about objects and events in their immediate environment. Environmental sounds such as car horns, baby cries, or chirping birds can alert listeners to imminent dangers as well as contribute to one's sense of awareness and well being. Perception of environmental sounds as acoustically and semantically complex stimuli may also involve some factors common to the processing of speech. However, very limited research has investigated the abilities of cochlear implant (CI) patients to identify common environmental sounds, despite patients' general enthusiasm about them. This project (1) investigated the ability of patients with modern-day CIs to perceive environmental sounds, (2) explored associations among speech, environmental sounds, and basic auditory abilities, and (3) examined acoustic factors that might be involved in environmental sound perception.
Seventeen experienced postlingually deafened CI patients participated in the study. Environmental sound perception was assessed with a large-item test composed of 40 sound sources, each represented by four different tokens. The relationship between speech and environmental sound perception and the role of working memory and some basic auditory abilities were examined based on patient performance on a battery of speech tests (HINT, CNC, and individual consonant and vowel tests), tests of basic auditory abilities (audiometric thresholds, gap detection, temporal pattern, and temporal order for tones tests), and a backward digit recall test.
The results indicated substantially reduced ability to identify common environmental sounds in CI patients (45.3%). Except for vowels, all speech test scores significantly correlated with the environmental sound test scores: r = 0.73 for HINT in quiet, r = 0.69 for HINT in noise, r = 0.70 for CNC, r = 0.64 for consonants, and r = 0.48 for vowels. HINT and CNC scores in quiet moderately correlated with the temporal order for tones. However, the correlation between speech and environmental sounds changed little after partialling out the variance due to other variables.
Present findings indicate that environmental sound identification is difficult for CI patients. They further suggest that speech and environmental sounds may overlap considerably in their perceptual processing. Certain spectrotemproral processing abilities are separately associated with speech and environmental sound performance. However, they do not appear to mediate the relationship between speech and environmental sounds in CI patients. Environmental sound rehabilitation may be beneficial to some patients. Environmental sound testing may have potential diagnostic applications, especially with difficult-to-test populations and might also be predictive of speech performance for prelingually deafened patients with cochlear implants.