Objectives: Despite the widespread use of noise reduction (NR) in modern digital hearing aids, our neurophysiological understanding of how NR affects speech-in-noise perception and why its effect is variable is limited. The current study aimed to (1) characterize the effect of NR on the neural processing of target speech and (2) seek neural determinants of individual differences in the NR effect on speech-in-noise performance, hypothesizing that an individual’s own capability to inhibit background noise would inversely predict NR benefits in speech-in-noise perception. Design: Thirty-six adult listeners with normal hearing participated in the study. Behavioral and electroencephalographic responses were simultaneously obtained during a speech-in-noise task in which natural monosyllabic words were presented at three different signal-to-noise ratios, each with NR off and on. A within-subject analysis assessed the effect of NR on cortical evoked responses to target speech in the temporal-frontal speech and language brain regions, including supramarginal gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus in the left hemisphere. In addition, an across-subject analysis related an individual’s tolerance to noise, measured as the amplitude ratio of auditory-cortical responses to target speech and background noise, to their speech-in-noise performance. Results: At the group level, in the poorest signal-to-noise ratio condition, NR significantly increased early supramarginal gyrus activity and decreased late inferior frontal gyrus activity, indicating a switch to more immediate lexical access and less effortful cognitive processing, although no improvement in behavioral performance was found. The across-subject analysis revealed that the cortical index of individual noise tolerance significantly correlated with NR-driven changes in speech-in-noise performance. Conclusions: NR can facilitate speech-in-noise processing despite no improvement in behavioral performance. Findings from the current study also indicate that people with lower noise tolerance are more likely to get more benefits from NR. Overall, results suggest that future research should take a mechanistic approach to NR outcomes and individual noise tolerance.
- Electroencephalography Hearing aid Individual differences
- Noise reduction
- Noise tolerance
- Speech recognition