Age-related Hearing Loss and Ear Morphology Affect Vertical but not Horizontal Sound-Localization Performance

  • Rik J. Otte
  • Martijn J. H. AgterbergEmail author
  • Marc M. Van Wanrooij
  • Ad F. M. Snik
  • A. John Van Opstal
Research Article


Several studies have attributed deterioration of sound localization in the horizontal (azimuth) and vertical (elevation) planes to an age-related decline in binaural processing and high-frequency hearing loss (HFHL). The latter might underlie decreased elevation performance of older adults. However, as the pinnae keep growing throughout life, we hypothesized that larger ears might enable older adults to localize sounds in elevation on the basis of lower frequencies, thus (partially) compensating their HFHL. In addition, it is not clear whether sound localization has already matured at a very young age, when the body is still growing, and the binaural and monaural sound-localization cues change accordingly. The present study investigated sound-localization performance of children (7–11 years), young adults (20–34 years), and older adults (63–80 years) under open-loop conditions in the two-dimensional frontal hemifield. We studied the effect of age-related hearing loss and ear size on localization responses to brief broadband sound bursts with different bandwidths. We found similar localization abilities in azimuth for all listeners, including the older adults with HFHL. Sound localization in elevation for the children and young adult listeners with smaller ears improved when stimuli contained frequencies above 7 kHz. Subjects with larger ears could also judge the elevation of sound sources restricted to lower frequency content. Despite increasing ear size, sound localization in elevation deteriorated in older adults with HFHL. We conclude that the binaural localization cues are successfully used well into later stages of life, but that pinna growth cannot compensate the more profound HFHL with age.


children directional hearing ear morphology head movements older adults transfer function 



We thank H. Kleijnen, P. Bens, T. Arts and M. Verbruggen for their technical support. We thank teachers and children from the primary school Het Talent (Lent, The Netherlands) for their enthusiast cooperation. This research was funded by the William Demants og Hustru Ida Emilies Fond and the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research, through a VICI grant within Earth and Life Sciences of NWO (project grant ALW/VICI 865.05.003; AJVO, MMVW), the Radboud University Nijmegen (AJVO), the Donders Centre for Neuroscience (MJHA), and the Department of Otorhinolaryngology at the Radboud University Medical Centre (AFMS).


  1. Abel SM, Hay VH (1996) Sound localization. The interaction of aging, hearing loss and hearing protection. Scand Audiol 25:3–12PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abel SM, Giguère C, Consoli A, Papsin BC (2000) The effect of aging on horizontal plane sound localization. J Acoust Soc Am 108:743–752PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Agterberg MJ, Snik AF, Hol MK, van Esch TE, Cremers CW, Van Wanrooij MM, Van Opstal AJ (2011) Improved horizontal directional hearing in bone conduction device users with acquired unilateral conductive hearing loss. J Assoc Res Otolaryngol 12:1–11PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Algazi VR, Duda RO, Thompson DM, Avendano C (2001) The CIPIC HRTF database. In: IEEE Workshop on Applications of Signal Processing to Audio and Acoustics. New Paltz, New York, pp 99–102Google Scholar
  5. Ashmead DH, Clifton RK, Perris EE (1987) Precision of auditory localization in human infants. Dev Psychol 23:641–647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Batteau DW (1967) The role of the pinna in human sound localization. Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 168:158–180PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blauert J (1997) Spatial hearing. The psychophysics of human sound localization. MIT, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  8. Brant LJ, Fozard JL (1990) Age-changes in pure-tone hearing thresholds in a longitudinal-study of normal human aging. J Acoust Soc Am 88:813–820PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bremen P, van Wanrooij MM, van Opstal AJ (2010) Pinna Cues determine orienting response modes to synchronous sounds in elevation. J Neurosci 30:194–204PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burge M, Burger W (1997) Ear biometrics. Springer Int Ser Eng Comput Sci 479:273–285Google Scholar
  11. Cheng CI, Wakefield GH (2001) Introduction to head-related transfer functions (HRTFs): representations of HRTFs in time, frequency, and space. J Audio Eng Soc 49:231–249Google Scholar
  12. Dobreva MS, O’Neill WE, Paige GD (2011) The influence of aging on human sound localization. J Neurophysiol 105:2471–2486PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dobreva MS, O’Neill WE, Paige GD (2012) Influence of age, spatial memory, and ocular fixation on localization of auditory, visual, and bimodal targets by human subjects. Exp Brain Res 223:441–455PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fischer BJ, Pena JL (2011) Owl’s behavior and neural representation predicted by Bayesian inference. Nat Neurosci 14:1061–U1163PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Goossens HH, Van Opstal AJ (1997) Human eye-head coordination in two dimensions under different sensorimotor conditions. Exp Brain Res 114:542–560PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Heathcote JA (1995) Why do old men have big ears? BMJ:23–30Google Scholar
  17. Hofman PM, Van Opstal AJ (1998) Spectro-temporal factors in two-dimensional human sound localization. J Acoust Soc Am 103:2634–2648PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hofman PM, Van Riswick JGA, Van Opstal AJ (1998) Relearning sound localization with new ears. Nat Neurosci 1:417–421PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kording KP, Wolpert DM (2006) Bayesian decision theory in sensorimotor control. Trends Cogn Sci 10:319–326PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Knudsen EI, Konishi M (1979) Mechanisms of sound localization in the barn owl (Tyto alba). J Comp Physiol A 133:13–21Google Scholar
  21. Lopez-Poveda EA, Meddis R (1996) A physical model of sound diffraction and reflections in the human concha. J Acoust Soc Am 100:32–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lovett RE, Kitterick PT, Huang S, Summerfield AQ (2012) The developmental trajectory of spatial listening skills in normal-hearing children. J Speech Lang Hear Res 55:865–878PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Middlebrooks JC (1992) Narrow-band sound localization related to external ear acoustics. J Acoust Soc Am 92:2607–2624PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Middlebrooks JC, Green DM (1991) Sound localization by human listeners. Annu Rev Psychol 42:135–159PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Morrongiello BA (1988) Infants localization of sounds along the horizontal axis—estimates of minimum audible angle. Dev Psychol 24:8–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Niemitz C (2007) Human ears grow throughout the entire lifetime according to complicated and sexually dimorphic patterns—conclusions from a cross-sectional analysis. Anthropol Anz 65:391–413PubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Noble W, Byrne D, Lepage B (1994) Effects on sound localization of configuration and type of hearing impairment. J Acoust Soc Am 95:992–1005PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rakerd B, Van der Velde TJ, Hartmann WM (1998) Sound localization in the median sagittal plane by listeners with presbyacusis. J Am Acad Audiol 9:466–479PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Ross B, Fujioka T, Tremblay KL, Picton TW (2007) Aging in binaural hearing begins in mid-life: evidence from cortical auditory-evoked responses to changes in interaural phase. J Neurosci 27:11172–11178PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Schneider BA, Pichora-Fuller MK (2001) Age-related changes in temporal processing: implications for speech perception. Semin Hear 22:227–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Strouse A, Ashmead DH, Ohde RN, Grantham DW (1998) Temporal processing in the aging auditory system. J Acoust Soc Am 104:2385–2399PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Tremblay KL, Piskosz M, Souza P (2003) Effects of age and age-related hearing loss on the neural representation of speech cues. Clin Neurophysiol 114:1332–1343PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Van Deun L, Van Wieringen A, Wouters J (2009) Sound localization, Sound lateralization, and binaural masking level differences in young children with normal hearing. Ear Hear 30:178–190PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Van Grootel TJ, Van Opstal AJ (2009) Human sound-localization behaviour after multiple changes in eye position. Eur J Neurosci 29:2233–2246PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Van Wanrooij MM, Van Opstal AJ (2005) Relearning sound localization with a new ear. J Neurosci 25:5413–5424PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Van Wanrooij MM, Van Opstal AJ (2007) Sound localization under perturbed binaural hearing. J Neurophysiol 97:715–726PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Yin TC (2002) Neural mechanisms of encoding binaural localization cues in the auditory brainstem. In: Oertel DFR, Popper AN (eds) Integrative functions in the mammalian auditory pathway. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 99–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Young ED, Davis KA (2002) Circuitry and function of the dorsal cochlear nucleus. In: Oertel DFR, Popper AN (eds) Integrative functions in the mammalian auditory pathway. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 160–206CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Zwiers MP, Versnel H, Van Opstal AJ (2004) Involvement of monkey inferior colliculus in spatial hearing. J Neurosci 24:4145–4156PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Association for Research in Otolaryngology 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rik J. Otte
    • 1
  • Martijn J. H. Agterberg
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Marc M. Van Wanrooij
    • 1
    • 2
  • Ad F. M. Snik
    • 2
  • A. John Van Opstal
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biophysics, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and BehaviourRadboud University NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Otorhinolaryngology, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and BehaviourRadboud University Nijmegen Medical CentreNijmegenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations