Neural alpha dynamics in younger and older listeners reflect acoustic challenges and predictive benefits

Malte Wöstmann, Björn Herrmann, Anna Wilsch, Jonas Obleser
Journal of Neuroscience 2015 January 28, 35 (4): 1458-67
Speech comprehension in multitalker situations is a notorious real-life challenge, particularly for older listeners. Younger listeners exploit stimulus-inherent acoustic detail, but are they also actively predicting upcoming information? And further, how do older listeners deal with acoustic and predictive information? To understand the neural dynamics of listening difficulties and according listening strategies, we contrasted neural responses in the alpha-band (∼10 Hz) in younger (20-30 years, n = 18) and healthy older (60-70 years, n = 20) participants under changing task demands in a two-talker paradigm. Electroencephalograms were recorded while humans listened to two spoken digits against a distracting talker and decided whether the second digit was smaller or larger. Acoustic detail (temporal fine structure) and predictiveness (the degree to which the first digit predicted the second) varied orthogonally. Alpha power at widespread scalp sites decreased with increasing acoustic detail (during target digit presentation) but also with increasing predictiveness (in-between target digits). For older compared with younger listeners, acoustic detail had a stronger impact on task performance and alpha power modulation. This suggests that alpha dynamics plays an important role in the changes in listening behavior that occur with age. Last, alpha power variations resulting from stimulus manipulations (of acoustic detail and predictiveness) as well as task-independent overall alpha power were related to subjective listening effort. The present data show that alpha dynamics is a promising neural marker of individual difficulties as well as age-related changes in sensation, perception, and comprehension in complex communication situations.

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