Permanent threshold elevation after noise exposure, ototoxic drugs, or aging is caused by loss of sensory cells; however, animal studies show that hair cell loss is often preceded by degeneration of synapses between sensory cells and auditory nerve fibers. The silencing of these neurons, especially those with high thresholds and low spontaneous rates, degrades auditory processing and may contribute to difficulties in understanding speech in noise. Although cochlear synaptopathy can be diagnosed in animals by measuring suprathreshold auditory brainstem responses, its diagnosis in humans remains a challenge. In mice, cochlear synaptopathy is also correlated with measures of middle ear muscle (MEM) reflex strength, possibly because the missing high-threshold neurons are important drivers of this reflex. The authors hypothesized that measures of the MEM reflex might be better than other assays of peripheral function in predicting difficulties hearing in difficult listening environments in human subjects.
The authors recruited 165 normal-hearing healthy subjects, between 18 and 63 years of age, with no history of ear or hearing problems, no history of neurologic disorders, and unremarkable otoscopic examinations. Word recognition in quiet and in difficult listening situations was measured in four ways: using isolated words from the Northwestern University auditory test number six corpus with either (a) 0 dB signal to noise, (b) 45% time compression with reverberation, or (c) 65% time compression with reverberation, and (d) with a modified version of the QuickSIN. Audiometric thresholds were assessed at standard and extended high frequencies. Outer hair cell function was assessed by distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAEs). Middle ear function and reflexes were assessed using three methods: the acoustic reflex threshold as measured clinically, wideband tympanometry as measured clinically, and a custom wideband method that uses a pair of click probes flanking an ipsilateral noise elicitor. Other aspects of peripheral auditory function were assessed by measuring click-evoked gross potentials, that is, summating potential (SP) and action potential (AP) from ear canal electrodes.
After adjusting for age and sex, word recognition scores were uncorrelated with audiometric or DPOAE thresholds, at either standard or extended high frequencies. MEM reflex thresholds were significantly correlated with scores on isolated word recognition, but not with the modified version of the QuickSIN. The highest pairwise correlations were seen using the custom assay. AP measures were correlated with some of the word scores, but not as highly as seen for the MEM custom assay, and only if amplitude was measured from SP peak to AP peak, rather than baseline to AP peak. The highest pairwise correlations with word scores, on all four tests, were seen with the SP/AP ratio, followed closely by SP itself. When all predictor variables were combined in a stepwise multivariate regression, SP/AP dominated models for all four word score outcomes. MEM measures only enhanced the adjusted r2 values for the 45% time compression test. The only other predictors that enhanced model performance (and only for two outcome measures) were measures of interaural threshold asymmetry.
Results suggest that, among normal-hearing subjects, there is a significant peripheral contribution to diminished hearing performance in difficult listening environments that is not captured by either threshold audiometry or DPOAEs. The significant univariate correlations between word scores and either SP/AP, SP, MEM reflex thresholds, or AP amplitudes (in that order) are consistent with a type of primary neural degeneration. However, interpretation is clouded by uncertainty as to the mix of pre- and postsynaptic contributions to the click-evoked SP. None of the assays presented here has the sensitivity to diagnose neural degeneration on a case-by-case basis; however, these tests may be useful in longitudinal studies to track accumulation of neural degeneration in individual subjects.