BME PhD Dissertation Defense - Hari Bharadwaj

10:00 am on Monday, March 24, 2014
CompNet Building (677, Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02215), Room B02 (basement)
Title: Individual Differences in Supra-threshold Auditory Perception - Mechanisms and Objective Correlates

Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (Advisor)
Steve Colburn (Chair)
Jason Ritt
Adrian K. C. Lee (U.Washington)
Cara Stepp (Sargent College)

To extract content and meaning from a single source of sound in a quiet background, the auditory system can use a small subset of a very redundant set of spectral and temporal features. In stark contrast, communication in a complex, crowded scene places enormous demands on the auditory system. Spectrotemporal overlap between sounds reduces modulations in the signals at the ears and causes masking, with problems exacerbated by reverberation. Consistent with this idea, many patients seeking audiological treatment seek help precisely because they notice difficulties in environments requiring auditory selective attention. In the laboratory, even listeners with normal hearing thresholds exhibit vast differences in the ability to selectively attend to a target. Understanding the mechanisms causing these “supra-threshold” differences, the focus of this thesis, can lead to transformative breakthroughs in treating communication disorders that affect an estimated 1 in 5 americans.
Converging evidence from human and animal studies points to one potential source of these individual differences: differences in the fidelity with which supra-threshold sound is encoded in the early portions of the auditory pathway. Electrophysiological measures of sound encoding by the auditory brainstem in humans and animals support the idea that the temporal precision of the early auditory neural representation can be poor even when hearing thresholds are normal. Concomitantly, animal studies show that noise exposure and early aging can cause a loss (“cochlear neuropathy”) of a large percentage of the afferent population of auditory nerve fibers innervating the cochlear hair cells without any significant change in measured audiograms.
Using behavioral, otoacoustic and electrophysiological measures in conjunction with computational models of sound processing by the auditory periphery and brainstem, a detailed examination of temporal coding of supra-threshold sound is carried out , focusing on characterizing and understanding individual differences in listeners with normal hearing thresholds and normal cochlear mechanical function. Results support the hypothesis that cochlear neuropathy may reduce encoding precision of supra-threshold sound, and that this manifests as deficits both behaviorally and in subcortical electrophysiological measures in humans. Based on these results, electrophysiological measures are developed that may yield sensitive, fast, objective measures of supra-threshold coding deficits that arise as a result of cochlear neuropathy.