Olivocochlear Efferent Activity Is Associated With the Slope of the Psychometric Function of Speech Recognition in Noise

Ian B Mertes, Erin C Wilbanks, Marjorie R Leek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


OBJECTIVES: The medial olivocochlear (MOC) efferent system can modify cochlear function to improve sound detection in noise, but its role in speech perception in noise is unclear. The purpose of this study was to determine the association between MOC efferent activity and performance on two speech-in-noise tasks at two signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs). It was hypothesized that efferent activity would be more strongly correlated with performance at the more challenging SNR, relative to performance at the less challenging SNR.

DESIGN: Sixteen adults aged 35 to 73 years participated. Subjects had pure-tone averages ≤25 dB HL and normal middle ear function. High-frequency pure-tone averages were computed across 3000 to 8000 Hz and ranged from 6.3 to 48.8 dB HL. Efferent activity was assessed using contralateral suppression of transient-evoked otoacoustic emissions (TEOAEs) measured in right ears, and MOC activation was achieved by presenting broadband noise to left ears. Contralateral suppression was expressed as the decibel change in TEOAE magnitude obtained with versus without the presence of the broadband noise. TEOAE responses were also examined for middle ear muscle reflex activation and synchronous spontaneous otoacoustic emissions (SSOAEs). Speech-in-noise perception was assessed using the closed-set coordinate response measure word recognition task and the open-set Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers sentence task. Speech and noise were presented to right ears at two SNRs. Performance on each task was scored as percent correct. Associations between contralateral suppression and speech-in-noise performance were quantified using partial rank correlational analyses, controlling for the variables age and high-frequency pure-tone average.

RESULTS: One subject was excluded due to probable middle ear muscle reflex activation. Subjects showed a wide range of contralateral suppression values, consistent with previous reports. Three subjects with SSOAEs had similar contralateral suppression results as subjects without SSOAEs. The magnitude of contralateral suppression was not significantly correlated with speech-in-noise performance on either task at a single SNR (p > 0.05), contrary to hypothesis. However, contralateral suppression was significantly correlated with the slope of the psychometric function, computed as the difference between performance levels at the two SNRs divided by 3 (decibel difference between the 2 SNRs) for the coordinate response measure task (partial rs = 0.59; p = 0.04) and for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers task (partial rs = 0.60; p = 0.03).

CONCLUSIONS: In a group of primarily older adults with normal hearing or mild hearing loss, olivocochlear efferent activity assessed using contralateral suppression of TEOAEs was not associated with speech-in-noise performance at a single SNR. However, auditory efferent activity appears to be associated with the slope of the psychometric function for both a word and sentence recognition task in noise. Results suggest that individuals with stronger MOC efferent activity tend to be more responsive to changes in SNR, where small increases in SNR result in better speech-in-noise performance relative to individuals with weaker MOC efferent activity. Additionally, the results suggest that the slope of the psychometric function may be a more useful metric than performance at a single SNR when examining the relationship between speech recognition in noise and MOC efferent activity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)583-593
Number of pages11
JournalEar and Hearing
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Auditory efferent system
  • Contralateral suppression
  • Hearing in noise
  • Otoacoustic emissions
  • Speech perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Speech and Hearing
  • Otorhinolaryngology

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