Human Evoked Cortical Activity to Silent Gaps in Noise: Effects of Age, Attention, and Cortical Processing Speed

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The goal of this study was to examine the degree to which age-related differences in early or automatic levels of auditory processing and attention-related processes explain age-related differences in auditory temporal processing. We hypothesized that age-related differences in attention and cognition compound age-related differences at automatic levels of processing, contributing to the robust age effects observed during challenging listening tasks.


We examined age-related and individual differences in cortical event-related potential (ERP) amplitudes and latencies, processing speed, and gap detection from 25 younger and 25 older adults with normal hearing. ERPs were elicited by brief silent periods (gaps) in an otherwise continuous broadband noise and were measured under two listening conditions, passive and active. During passive listening, participants ignored the stimulus and read quietly. During active listening, participants button pressed each time they detected a gap. Gap detection (percent detected) was calculated for each gap duration during active listening (3, 6, 9, 12, and 15 msec). Processing speed was assessed using the Purdue Pegboard Test and the Connections Test. Repeated measures analyses of variance assessed effects of age on gap detection, processing speed, and ERP amplitudes and latencies. An “attention modulation” construct was created using linear regression to examine the effects of attention while controlling for age-related differences in auditory processing. Pearson correlation analyses assessed the extent to which attention modulation, ERPs, and processing speed predicted behavioral gap detection.


Older adults had significantly poorer gap detection and slower processing speed than younger adults. Even after adjusting for poorer gap detection, the neurophysiological response to gap onset was atypical in older adults with reduced P2 amplitudes and virtually absent N2 responses. Moreover, individual differences in attention modulation of P2 response latencies and N2 amplitudes predicted gap detection and processing speed in older adults. That is, older adults with P2 latencies that decreased and N2 amplitudes that increased with active listening had faster processing speed and better gap detection than those older adults whose P2 latencies increased and N2 amplitudes decreased with attention.


The results from the present study are broadly consistent with previous findings that older adults exhibit significantly poorer gap detection than younger adults in challenging tasks. Even after adjusting for poorer gap detection, older and younger adults showed robust differences in their electrophysiological responses to sound offset. Furthermore, the degree to which attention modulated the ERP was associated with individual variation in measures of processing speed and gap detection. Taken together, these results suggest an age-related deficit in early or automatic levels of auditory temporal processing and that some older adults may be less able to compensate for declines in processing by attending to the stimulus. These results extend our previous findings and support the hypothesis that age-related differences in cognitive or attention-related processing, including processing speed, contribute to an age-related decrease in gap detection.

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