Linguistic Context Versus Semantic Competition in Word Recognition by Younger and Older Adults With Cochlear Implants

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The increasing numbers of older adults now receiving cochlear implants raises the question of how the novel signal produced by cochlear implants may interact with cognitive aging in the recognition of words heard spoken within a linguistic context. The objective of this study was to pit the facilitative effects of a constraining linguistic context against a potential age-sensitive negative effect of response competition on effectiveness of word recognition.


Younger (n = 8; mean age = 22.5 years) and older (n = 8; mean age = 67.5 years) adult implant recipients heard 20 target words as the final words in sentences that manipulated the target word’s probability of occurrence within the sentence context. Data from published norms were also used to measure response entropy, calculated as the total number of different responses and the probability distribution of the responses suggested by the sentence context. Sentence-final words were presented to participants using a word-onset gating paradigm, in which a target word was presented with increasing amounts of its onset duration in 50 msec increments until the word was correctly identified.


Results showed that for both younger and older adult implant users, the amount of word-onset information needed for correct recognition of sentence-final words was inversely proportional to their likelihood of occurrence within the sentence context, with older adults gaining differential advantage from the contextual constraints offered by a sentence context. On the negative side, older adults’ word recognition was differentially hampered by high response entropy, with this effect being driven primarily by the number of competing responses that might also fit the sentence context.


Consistent with previous research with normal-hearing younger and older adults, the present results showed older adult implant users’ recognition of spoken words to be highly sensitive to linguistic context. This sensitivity, however, also resulted in a greater degree of interference from other words that might also be activated by the context, with negative effects on ease of word recognition. These results are consistent with an age-related inhibition deficit extending to the domain of semantic constraints on word recognition.

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