The purpose of this study was to determine the reliability of the electrophysiological binaural beat steady state response as a gauge of temporal fine structure coding, particularly as it relates to the aging auditory system. The hypothesis was that the response would be more robust in a lower, than in a higher, frequency region and in younger, than in older, adults.
Two experiments were undertaken. The first measured the 40 Hz binaural beat steady state response elicited by tone pairs in two frequency regions: Lower (390 and 430 Hz tone pair) and higher (810 and 850 Hz tone pair). Frequency following responses (FFRs) evoked by the tones were also recorded. Ten young adults with normal hearing participated. The second experiment measured the binaural beat and FFRs in older adults but only in the lower frequency region. Fourteen older adults with relatively normal hearing participated. Response metrics in both experiments included response component signal-to-noise ratio (F statistic) and magnitude-squared coherence.
Experiment 1 showed that FFRs were elicited in both frequency regions but were more robust in the lower frequency region. Binaural beat responses elicited by the lower frequency pair of tones showed greater amplitude fluctuation within a participant than the respective FFRs. Experiment 2 showed that older adults exhibited similar FFRs to younger adults, but proportionally fewer older participants showed binaural beat responses. Age differences in onset responses were also observed.
The lower prevalence of the binaural beat response in older adults, despite the presence of FFRs, provides tentative support for the sensitivity of this measure to age-related deficits in temporal processing. However, the lability of the binaural beat response advocates caution in its use as an objective measure of fine structure coding.