Selective hearing refers to the ability of the human auditory system to selectively attend to a desired speaker while ignoring undesired, concurrent speakers. This is often referred to as the cocktail-party problem. In normal hearing, selective hearing is remarkably powerful. However, in so-called electric hearing, i.e., hearing with cochlear implants (CIs), selective hearing is severely degraded, close to not present at all. CIs are commonly used for treatment of severe-to-profound hearing loss or deafness because they provide good speech understanding in quiet. The reasons for the deficits in selective hearing are mainly twofold. First, they arise from structural limitations of current CI electrode designs which severely limit the spectral resolution. Second, they arise from a lack of salient timing cues, most importantly interaural time difference (ITD) and temporal pitch. The second limitation is assumed to be partly “software”-sided and conquerable with perception-driven signal processing. Yet, success achieved so far is at best moderate.
A recently proposed approach to provide precise ITD and temporal-pitch cues in addition to speech understanding is to insert extra pulses with short inter-pulse intervals (so-called SIPI pulses) into periodic high-rate pulse trains. Results gathered so far in our previous project ITD PsyPhy in single-electrode configurations are encouraging in that both ITD and temporal-pitch sensitivity improved when SIPI pulses were inserted at the signals’ temporal-envelope peaks. Building on those results, this project aims to answer the most urgent research questions towards determining whether the SIPI approach improves selective hearing in CI listeners: Does the SIPI benefit translate into multi-electrode configurations? Does the multi-electrode SIPI approach harm speech understanding? Does the multi-electrode SIPI approach improve speech-in-speech understanding?
Psychophysical experiments with CI listeners are planned to examine the research questions. To ensure high temporal precision and stimulus control, clinical CI signal processors will be bypassed by using a laboratory stimulation system directly connecting the CIs with a laboratory computer. The results are expected to shed light on parts of both electric and acoustic hearing that are still not fully understood to date, such as the role and the potential of temporal cues in selective hearing.