Afferent-efferent connectivity between auditory brainstem and cortex accounts for poorer speech-in-noise comprehension in older adults


Speech-in-noise (SIN) comprehension deficits in older adults have been linked to changes in both subcortical and cortical auditory evoked responses. However, older adults' difficulty understanding SIN may also be related to an imbalance in signal transmission (i.e., functional connectivity) between brainstem and auditory cortices. By modeling high-density scalp recordings of speech-evoked responses with sources in brainstem (BS) and bilateral primary auditory cortices (PAC), we show that beyond attenuating neural activity, hearing loss in older adults compromises the transmission of speech information between subcortical and early cortical hubs of the speech network. We found that the strength of afferent BS→PAC neural signaling (but not the reverse efferent flow; PAC→BS) varied with mild declines in hearing acuity and this “bottom-up” functional connectivity robustly predicted older adults’ performance in a SIN identification task. Connectivity was also a better predictor of SIN processing than unitary subcortical or cortical responses alone. Our neuroimaging findings suggest that in older adults (i) mild hearing loss differentially reduces neural output at several stages of auditory processing (PAC > BS), (ii) subcortical-cortical connectivity is more sensitive to peripheral hearing loss than top-down (cortical-subcortical) control, and (iii) reduced functional connectivity in afferent auditory pathways plays a significant role in SIN comprehension problems.

Publication Title

Hearing Research