Effects of attention on the speech reception threshold and pupil response of people with impaired and normal hearing
For people with hearing difficulties, following a conversation in a noisy environment requires substantial cognitive processing, which is often perceived as effortful. Recent studies with normal hearing (NH) listeners showed that the pupil dilation response, a measure of cognitive processing load, is affected by ‘attention related’ processes. How these processes affect the pupil dilation response for hearing impaired (HI) listeners remains unknown. Therefore, the current study investigated the effect of auditory attention on various pupil response parameters for 15 NH adults (median age 51 yrs.) and 15 adults with mild to moderate sensorineural hearing loss (median age 52 yrs.). Both groups listened to two different sentences presented simultaneously, one to each ear and partially masked by stationary noise. Participants had to repeat either both sentences or only one, for which they had to divide or focus attention, respectively. When repeating one sentence, the target sentence location (left or right) was either randomized or blocked across trials, which in the latter case allowed for a better spatial focus of attention. The speech-to-noise ratio was adjusted to yield about 50% sentences correct for each task and condition. NH participants had lower (‘better’) speech reception thresholds (SRT) than HI participants. The pupil measures showed no between-group effects, with the exception of a shorter peak latency for HI participants, which indicated a shorter processing time. Both groups showed higher SRTs and a larger pupil dilation response when two sentences were processed instead of one. Additionally, SRTs were higher and dilation responses were larger for both groups when the target location was randomized instead of fixed. We conclude that although HI participants could cope with less noise than the NH group, their ability to focus attention on a single talker, thereby improving SRTs and lowering cognitive processing load, was preserved. Shorter peak latencies could indicate that HI listeners adapt their listening strategy by not processing some information, which reduces processing time and thereby listening effort.