Cochlear implants (CIs) restore some spatial advantages for speech understanding in noise to individuals with single-sided deafness (SSD). In addition to a head-shadow advantage when the CI ear has a better signal-to-noise ratio, a CI can also provide a binaural advantage in certain situations, facilitating the perceptual separation of spatially separated concurrent voices. While some bilateral-CI listeners show a similar binaural advantage, bilateral-CI listeners with relatively large asymmetries in monaural speech understanding can instead experience contralateral speech interference. Based on the interference previously observed for asymmetric bilateral-CI listeners, this study tested the hypothesis that in a multiple-talker situation, the acoustic ear would interfere with rather than improve CI speech understanding for SSD-CI listeners.
Experiment 1 measured CI-ear speech understanding in the presence of competing speech or noise for 13 SSD-CI listeners. Target speech from the closed-set coordinate response-measure corpus was presented to the CI ear along with one same-gender competing talker or stationary noise at target-to-masker ratios between −8 and 20 dB. The acoustic ear was presented with silence (monaural condition) or with a copy of the competing speech or noise (bilateral condition). Experiment 2 tested a subset of 6 listeners in the reverse configuration for which SSD-CI listeners have previously shown a binaural benefit (target and competing speech presented to the acoustic ear; silence or competing speech presented to the CI ear). Experiment 3 examined the possible influence of a methodological difference between experiments 1 and 2: whether the competing talker spoke keywords that were inside or outside the response set. For each experiment, the data were analyzed using repeated-measures logistic regression. For experiment 1, a correlation analysis compared the difference between bilateral and monaural speech-understanding scores to several listener-specific factors: speech understanding in the CI ear, preimplantation duration of deafness, duration of CI experience, ear of deafness (left/right), acoustic-ear audiometric thresholds, and listener age.
In experiment 1, presenting a copy of the competing speech to the acoustic ear reduced CI speech-understanding scores for target-to-masker ratios ≥4 dB. This interference effect was limited to competing-speech conditions and was not observed for a noise masker. There was dramatic intersubject variability in the magnitude of the interference (range: 1 to 43 rationalized arcsine units), which was found to be significantly correlated with listener age. The interference effect contrasted sharply with the reverse configuration (experiment 2), whereby presenting a copy of the competing speech to the contralateral CI ear significantly improved performance relative to monaural acoustic-ear performance. Keyword condition (experiment 3) did not influence the observed pattern of interference.
Most SSD-CI listeners experienced interference when they attended to the CI ear and competing speech was added to the acoustic ear, although there was a large amount of intersubject variability in the magnitude of the effect, with older listeners particularly susceptible to interference. While further research is needed to investigate these effects under free-field listening conditions, these results suggest that for certain spatial configurations in a multiple-talker situation, contralateral speech interference could reduce the benefit that an SSD-CI otherwise provides.