Bilateral cochlear implant (BiCI) listeners use independent processors in each ear. This independence and lack of shared hardware prevents control of the timing of sampling and stimulation across ears, which precludes the development of bilaterally-coordinated signal processing strategies. As a result, these devices potentially reduce access to binaural cues and introduce disruptive artifacts. For example, measurements from two clinical processors demonstrate that independently-running processors introduce interaural incoherence. These issues are typically avoided in the laboratory by using research processors with bilaterally-synchronized hardware. However, these research processors do not typically run in real-time and are difficult to take out into the real-world due to their benchtop nature. Hence, the question of whether just applying hardware synchronization to reduce bilateral stimulation artifacts (and thereby potentially improve functional spatial hearing performance) has been difficult to answer. The CI personal digital assistant (ciPDA) research processor, which uses one clock to drive two processors, presented an opportunity to examine whether synchronization of hardware can have an impact on spatial hearing performance.
Free-field sound localization and spatial release from masking (SRM) were assessed in 10 BiCI listeners using both their clinical processors and the synchronized ciPDA processor. For sound localization, localization accuracy was compared within-subject for the two processor types. For SRM, speech reception thresholds were compared for spatially separated and co-located configurations, and the amount of unmasking was compared for synchronized and unsynchronized hardware. There were no deliberate changes of the sound processing strategy on the ciPDA to restore or improve binaural cues.
There was no significant difference in localization accuracy between unsynchronized and synchronized hardware (p = 0.62). Speech reception thresholds were higher with the ciPDA. In addition, although five of eight participants demonstrated improved SRM with synchronized hardware, there was no significant difference in the amount of unmasking due to spatial separation between synchronized and unsynchronized hardware (p = 0.21).
Using processors with synchronized hardware did not yield an improvement in sound localization or SRM for all individuals, suggesting that mere synchronization of hardware is not sufficient for improving spatial hearing outcomes. Further work is needed to improve sound coding strategies to facilitate access to spatial hearing cues. This study provides a benchmark for spatial hearing performance with real-time, bilaterally-synchronized research processors.