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New Illinois Study Examines the Utility of extended high-frequency hearing

A new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign could explain why we have more difficulty as we age in trying to understand others when talking in noisy environments.

The study, entitled “Ecological cocktail party listening reveals the utility of extended high-frequency hearing,” was led by Speech and Hearing Science assistant professor Brian Monson and was published in the September edition of Hearing Research.

Monson’s research found that extended high-frequency hearing supports the detection and understanding of speech, particularly in noisy situations; that extended high-frequency hearing enables improved talker-head-orientation detection -- in other words, the speaking person's location -- and that speech exhibits audible energy beyond 8 kHz -- the threshold for extended high-frequency hearing -- which is useful for speech perception.

Twenty people took part in the study, ages 20-27 and all had normal hearing and no history of a hearing disorder.

If you have “normal hearing” but find yourself having more difficulty than you used to in understanding others in a noisy situation, it may be that you are losing your extended high-frequency hearing, Monson said. Such EHF hearing loss typically goes undiagnosed, but is widespread among the middle-aged population, Monson said.

Monson’s study also found that a “sensitivity to the highest audio frequencies fosters communication and socialization of the human species.”

“Until now, it has been believed that EHF hearing is not useful for speech perception,” Monson said, explaining the impact of the study. “Also, we usually don’t assess speech listening in a very realistic setting in the audiology clinic.”

In noisy situations, such as a train, or the cocktail party the article title refers to, EHF hearing may help you “tune in” to the person who is talking to you, Monson said.

The study’s findings suggest that loss of sensitivity to the highest frequencies may lead to deficits in speech perception. Monson also posits that, since the ability to communicate with others of our species is crucial for reproductive success, EHF hearing “contributes to reproductive success.”

As for what comes next, Monson said he hopes to modify current clinical practice to assess EHF hearing more readily for individuals who complain of speech-in-noise problems, and to mimic a more realistic every-day listening situation in audiological assessments.

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