Sensory coding and cognitive processing of sound in Veterans with blast exposure
Recent anecdotal reports from VA audiology clinics as well as a few published studies have identified a sub-population of Service Members seeking treatment for problems communicating in everyday, noisy listening environments despite having normal to near-normal hearing thresholds. Because of their increased risk of exposure to dangerous levels of prolonged noise and transient explosive blast events, communication problems in these soldiers could be due to either hearing loss (traditional or “hidden”) in the auditory sensory periphery or from blast-induced injury to cortical networks associated with attention. We found that out of the 14 blast-exposed Service Members recruited for this study, 12 had hearing thresholds in the normal to near-normal range. A majority of these participants reported having problems specifically related to failures with selective attention. Envelope following responses (EFRs) measuring neural coding fidelity of the auditory brainstem to suprathreshold sounds were similar between blast-exposed and non-blast controls. Blast-exposed subjects performed substantially worse than non-blast controls in an auditory selective attention task in which listeners classified the melodic contour (rising, falling, or “zig-zagging”) of one of three simultaneous, competing tone sequences. Salient pitch and spatial differences made for easy segregation of the three concurrent melodies. Poor performance in the blast-exposed subjects was associated with weaker evoked response potentials (ERPs) in frontal EEG channels, as well as a failure of attention to enhance the neural responses evoked by a sequence when it was the target compared to when it was a distractor. These results suggest that communication problems in these listeners cannot be explained by compromised sensory representations in the auditory periphery, but rather point to lingering blast-induced damage to cortical networks implicated in the control of attention. Because all study participants also suffered from post-traumatic disorder (PTSD), follow-up studies are required to tease apart the contributions of PTSD and blast-induced injury on cognitive performance.