Enhanced perception of pitch changes in speech and music in early blind adults

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Abstract

It is well known that congenitally blind adults have enhanced auditory processing for some tasks. For instance, they show supra-normal capacity to perceive accelerated speech. However, only a few studies have investigated basic auditory processing in this population. In this study, we investigated if pitch processing enhancement in the blind is a domain-general or domain-specific phenomenon, and if pitch processing shares the same properties as in the sighted regarding how scores from different domains are associated. Fifteen congenitally blind adults and fifteen sighted adults participated in the study. We first created a set of personalized native and non-native vowel stimuli using an identification and rating task. Then, an adaptive discrimination paradigm was used to determine the frequency difference limen for pitch direction identification of speech (native and non-native vowels) and non-speech stimuli (musical instruments and pure tones). The results show that the blind participants had better discrimination thresholds than controls for native vowels, music stimuli, and pure tones. Whereas within the blind group, the discrimination thresholds were smaller for musical stimuli than speech stimuli, replicating previous findings in sighted participants, we did not find this effect in the current control group. Further analyses indicate that older sighted participants show higher thresholds for instrument sounds compared to speech sounds. This effect of age was not found in the blind group. Moreover, the scores across domains were not associated to the same extent in the blind as they were in the sighted. In conclusion, in addition to providing further evidence of compensatory auditory mechanisms in early blind individuals, our results point to differences in how auditory processing is modulated in this population.

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