Effects of Age on Cortical Tracking of Word-Level Features of Continuous Competing Speech

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Speech-in-noise comprehension difficulties are common among the elderly population, yet traditional objective measures of speech perception are largely insensitive to this deficit, particularly in the absence of clinical hearing loss. In recent years, a growing body of research in young normal-hearing adults has demonstrated that high-level features related to speech semantics and lexical predictability elicit strong centro-parietal negativity in the EEG signal around 400 ms following the word onset. Here we investigate effects of age on cortical tracking of these word-level features within a two-talker speech mixture, and their relationship with self-reported difficulties with speech-in-noise understanding. While undergoing EEG recordings, younger and older adult participants listened to a continuous narrative story in the presence of a distractor story. We then utilized forward encoding models to estimate cortical tracking of four speech features: (1) word onsets, (2) “semantic” dissimilarity of each word relative to the preceding context, (3) lexical surprisal for each word, and (4) overall word audibility. Our results revealed robust tracking of all features for attended speech, with surprisal and word audibility showing significantly stronger contributions to neural activity than dissimilarity. Additionally, older adults exhibited significantly stronger tracking of word-level features than younger adults, especially over frontal electrode sites, potentially reflecting increased listening effort. Finally, neuro-behavioral analyses revealed trends of a negative relationship between subjective speech-in-noise perception difficulties and the model goodness-of-fit for attended speech, as well as a positive relationship between task performance and the goodness-of-fit, indicating behavioral relevance of these measures. Together, our results demonstrate the utility of modeling cortical responses to multi-talker speech using complex, word-level features and the potential for their use to study changes in speech processing due to aging and hearing loss.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number635126
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
StatePublished - Apr 1 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Financial support for this work was provided by NIH grant R01 DC015462 awarded to MW. The work of LR was supported by the NSF REU grant 1757390.

Publisher Copyright:
© Copyright © 2021 Mesik, Ray and Wojtczak.


  • aging
  • electroencephalography
  • lexical surprisal
  • semantic processing
  • speech perception
  • speech-in-noise (SIN) perception
  • temporal response function (TRF)


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