Date: 22 Sep 2011

Individual Differences in Behavioral Estimates of Cochlear Nonlinearities


Psychophysical methods provide a mechanism to infer the characteristics of basilar membrane responses in humans that cannot be directly measured. Because these behavioral measures are indirect, the interpretation of results depends on several underlying assumptions. Ongoing uncertainty about the suitability of these assumptions and the most appropriate measurement and compression estimation procedures, and unanswered questions regarding the effects of cochlear hearing loss and age on basilar membrane nonlinearities, motivated this experiment. Here, estimates of cochlear nonlinearities using temporal masking curves (TMCs) were obtained in a large sample of adults of various ages whose hearing ranged from normal to moderate cochlear hearing loss (Experiment 1). A wide range of compression slopes was observed, even for subjects with similar ages and thresholds, which warranted further investigation (Experiment 2). Potential sources of variance contributing to these individual differences were explored, including procedural-related factors (test–retest reliability, suitability of the linear-reference TMC, probe sensation levels, and parameters of TMC fitting algorithms) and subject-related factors (age and age-related changes in temporal processing, strength of cochlear nonlinearities estimated with distortion-product otoacoustic emissions, estimates of changes in cochlear function from damage to outer hair cells versus inner hair cells). Subject age did not contribute significantly to TMC or compression slopes, and TMC slopes did not vary significantly with threshold. Test–retest reliability of TMCs suggested that TMC masker levels and the general shapes of TMCs did not change in a systematic way when re-measured many weeks later. Although the strength of compression decreased slightly with increasing hearing loss, the magnitude of individual differences in compression estimates makes it difficult to determine the effects of hearing loss and cochlear damage on basilar membrane nonlinearities in humans.