It is commonly assumed that difficulty in listening to speech in noise is at least partly due to deficits in neural temporal processing.
Given that noise reduces the temporal fidelity of the auditory brainstem response (ABR) to speech, it has been suggested that the speech ABR may serve as an index of such neural deficits.
However, the temporal fidelity of ABRs, to both speech and non-speech sounds, is also known to be influenced by the cochlear origin of the response, as responses from higher-frequency cochlear regions are faster and more synchronous than responses from lower-frequency regions.
Thus, if noise caused a reweighting of response contributions from higher- to lower-frequency cochlear regions, the temporal fidelity of the aggregate response should be reduced even in the absence of any changes in neural processing.
This ‘place mechanism’ has been demonstrated for non-speech ABRs. The aim of this study was to test whether it also applies to speech ABRs. We used the so-called ‘derived-band’ method to isolate response contributions from frequency-limited cochlear regions.
Broadband and derived-band speech ABRs were measured both in quiet and in noise.
Whilst the noise caused significant changes to the temporal properties of the broadband response, its effects on the derived-band responses were mostly restricted to the response amplitudes.
Importantly, the amplitudes of the higher-frequency derived-band responses were much more strongly affected than those of the lower-frequency responses, suggesting that the noise indeed caused a reweighting effect.
Our results indicate that, as for non-speech ABRs, the cochlear place mechanism can represent a potentially substantial confound to speech-ABR-in-noise measurements.