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Informational Masking Effects on Neural Encoding of Stimulus Onset and Acoustic Change

Niemczak, Christopher E.; Vander Werff, Kathy R.

doi: 10.1097/AUD.0000000000000604
Research Article

Objective: Recent investigations using cortical auditory evoked potentials have shown masker-dependent effects on sensory cortical processing of speech information. Background noise maskers consisting of other people talking are particularly difficult for speech recognition. Behavioral studies have related this to perceptual masking, or informational masking, beyond just the overlap of the masker and target at the auditory periphery. The aim of the present study was to use cortical auditory evoked potentials, to examine how maskers (i.e., continuous speech-shaped noise [SSN] and multi-talker babble) affect the cortical sensory encoding of speech information at an obligatory level of processing. Specifically, cortical responses to vowel onset and formant change were recorded under different background noise conditions presumed to represent varying amounts of energetic or informational masking. The hypothesis was, that even at this obligatory cortical level of sensory processing, we would observe larger effects on the amplitude and latency of the onset and change components as the amount of informational masking increased across background noise conditions.

Design: Onset and change responses were recorded to a vowel change from /u-i/ in young adults under four conditions: quiet, continuous SSN, eight-talker (8T) babble, and two-talker (2T) babble. Repeated measures analyses by noise condition were conducted on amplitude, latency, and response area measurements to determine the differential effects of these noise conditions, designed to represent increasing and varying levels of informational and energetic masking, on cortical neural representation of a vowel onset and acoustic change response waveforms.

Results: All noise conditions significantly reduced onset N1 and P2 amplitudes, onset N1-P2 peak to peak amplitudes, as well as both onset and change response area compared with quiet conditions. Further, all amplitude and area measures were significantly reduced for the two babble conditions compared with continuous SSN. However, there were no significant differences in peak amplitude or area for either onset or change responses between the two different babble conditions (eight versus two talkers). Mean latencies for all onset peaks were delayed for noise conditions compared with quiet. However, in contrast to the amplitude and area results, differences in peak latency between SSN and the babble conditions did not reach statistical significance.

Conclusions: These results support the idea that while background noise maskers generally reduce amplitude and increase latency of speech-sound evoked cortical responses, the type of masking has a significant influence. Speech babble maskers (eight talkers and two talkers) have a larger effect on the obligatory cortical response to speech sound onset and change compared with purely energetic continuous SSN maskers, which may be attributed to informational masking effects. Neither the neural responses to the onset nor the vowel change, however, were sensitive to the hypothesized increase in the amount of informational masking between speech babble maskers with two talkers compared with eight talkers.

Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, USA.

Received May 1, 2017; accepted March 27, 2018.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Address for correspondence: Christopher E. Niemczak, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Syracuse University, Communication Sciences and Disorders, 621 Skytop Road, Suite 1200, Syracuse, NY 13214, USA. E-mail:

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