Masking release with changing fundamental frequency: Electric acoustic stimulation resembles normal hearing subjects

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It has been shown that patients with electric acoustic stimulation (EAS) perform better in noisy environments than patients with a cochlear implant (CI). One reason for this could be the preserved access to acoustic low-frequency cues including the fundamental frequency (F0). Therefore, our primary aim was to investigate whether users of EAS experience a release from masking with increasing F0 difference between target talker and masking talker. The study comprised 29 patients and consisted of three groups of subjects: EAS users, CI users and normal-hearing listeners (NH). All CI and EAS users were implanted with a MED-EL cochlear implant and had at least 12 months of experience with the implant. Speech perception was assessed with the Oldenburg sentence test (OlSa) using one sentence from the test corpus as speech masker. The F0 in this masking sentence was shifted upwards by 4, 8, or 12 semitones. For each of these masker conditions the speech reception threshold (SRT) was assessed by adaptively varying the masker level while presenting the target sentences at a fixed level. A statistically significant improvement in speech perception was found for increasing difference in F0 between target sentence and masker sentence in EAS users (p = 0.038) and in NH listeners (p = 0.003). In CI users (classic CI or EAS users with electrical stimulation only) speech perception was independent from differences in F0 between target and masker. A release from masking with increasing difference in F0 between target and masking speech was only observed in listeners and configurations in which the low-frequency region was presented acoustically. Thus, the speech information contained in the low frequencies seems to be crucial for allowing listeners to separate multiple sources. By combining acoustic and electric information, EAS users even manage tasks as complicated as segregating the audio streams from multiple talkers. Preserving the natural code, like fine-structure cues in the low-frequency region, seems to be crucial to provide CI users with the best benefit.

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