Individual differences in speech-in-noise perception parallel neural speech processing and attention in preschoolers

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From bustling classrooms to unruly lunchrooms, school settings are noisy. To learn effectively in the unwelcome company of numerous distractions, children must clearly perceive speech in noise. In older children and adults, speech-in-noise perception is supported by sensory and cognitive processes, but the correlates underlying this critical listening skill in young children (3–5 year olds) remain undetermined. Employing a longitudinal design (two evaluations separated by ˜12 months), we followed a cohort of 59 preschoolers, ages 3.0–4.9, assessing word-in-noise perception, cognitive abilities (intelligence, short-term memory, attention), and neural responses to speech. Results reveal changes in word-in-noise perception parallel changes in processing of the fundamental frequency (F0), an acoustic cue known for playing a role central to speaker identification and auditory scene analysis. Four unique developmental trajectories (speech-in-noise perception groups) confirm this relationship, in that improvements and declines in word-in-noise perception couple with enhancements and diminishments of F0 encoding, respectively. Improvements in word-in-noise perception also pair with gains in attention. Word-in-noise perception does not relate to strength of neural harmonic representation or short-term memory. These findings reinforce previously-reported roles of F0 and attention in hearing speech in noise in older children and adults, and extend this relationship to preschool children.

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