Talker sex and spatial cues can facilitate segregation of competing speech. However, the spectrotemporal degradation associated with cochlear implants (CIs) can limit the benefit of talker sex and spatial cues. Acoustic hearing in the nonimplanted ear can improve access to talker sex cues in CI users. However, it’s unclear whether the CI can improve segregation of competing speech when maskers are symmetrically placed around the target (i.e., when spatial cues are available), compared with acoustic hearing alone. The aim of this study was to investigate whether a CI can improve segregation of competing speech by individuals with unilateral hearing loss.
Speech recognition thresholds (SRTs) for competing speech were measured in 16 normal-hearing (NH) adults and 16 unilaterally deaf CI users. All participants were native speakers of Mandarin Chinese. CI users were divided into two groups according to thresholds in the nonimplanted ear: (1) single-sided deaf (SSD); pure-tone thresholds <25 dB HL at all audiometric frequencies, and (2) Asymmetric hearing loss (AHL; one or more thresholds > 25 dB HL). SRTs were measured for target sentences produced by a male talker in the presence of two masker talkers (different male or female talkers). The target sentence was always presented via loudspeaker directly in front of the listener (0°), and the maskers were either colocated with the target (0°) or spatially separated from the target at ±90°. Three segregation cue conditions were tested to measure masking release (MR) relative to the baseline condition: (1) Talker sex, (2) Spatial, and (3) Talker sex + Spatial. For CI users, SRTs were measured with the CI on or off.
Binaural MR was significantly better for the NH group than for the AHL or SSD groups (P < 0.001 in all cases). For the NH group, mean MR was largest with the Talker sex + spatial cues (18.8 dB) and smallest for the Talker sex cues (10.7 dB). In contrast, mean MR for the SSD group was largest with the Talker sex + spatial cues (14.7 dB), and smallest with the Spatial cues (4.8 dB). For the AHL group, mean MR was largest with the Talker sex + spatial cues (7.8 dB) and smallest with the Talker sex (4.8 dB) and the Spatial cues (4.8 dB). MR was significantly better with the CI on than off for both the AHL (P = 0.014) and SSD groups (P < 0.001). Across all unilaterally deaf CI users, monaural (acoustic ear alone) and binaural MR were significantly correlated with unaided pure-tone average thresholds in the nonimplanted ear for the Talker sex and Talker sex + spatial conditions (P < 0.001 in both cases) but not for the Spatial condition.
Although the CI benefitted unilaterally deaf listeners’ segregation of competing speech, MR was much poorer than that observed in NH listeners. Different from previous findings with steady noise maskers, the CI benefit for segregation of competing speech from a different talker sex was greater in the SSD group than in the AHL group.