The purpose of this study was to measure low-rate binaural frequency modulation (FM) detection across the lifespan as a gauge of temporal fine structure processing. Children and older adults were expected to perform more poorly than young adults but for different reasons.
Detection of 2-Hz FM carried by a 500-Hz pure tone was measured for modulators that were either in-phase or out-of-phase across ears. Thresholds were measured in quiet and in noise. Participants were school-age children (n = 44), young adults (n = 11), and older adults (n = 17) with normal or near-normal hearing.
Thresholds were lower for out-of-phase than in-phase modulators among all listening groups. Detection thresholds improved with child age, with larger effects of age for dichotic than diotic FM. Introduction of masking noise tended to elevate thresholds; this effect was larger for the dichotic condition than the diotic condition, and larger for older adults than young adults. In noise, young adults received the greatest dichotic benefit, followed by older adults, then young children. The relative effects of noise on dichotic benefit did not differ for young adults compared to young children and older adults; however, young children saw greater reduction in benefit due to noise than older adults.
The difference in dichotic benefit between children and young adults is consistent with maturation of central auditory processing. Differences in the effect of noise on dichotic benefit in young children and older adults support the idea that different factors or combinations of factors limit performance in these two groups. Although dichotic FM detection appears to be more sensitive to the effects of development and aging than diotic FM detection, the positive correlation between diotic and dichotic FM detection thresholds for all listeners suggests contribution of one or more factors common to both conditions.