Recent physiological studies in several rodent species have revealed that permanent damage can occur to the auditory system after exposure to a noise that produces only a temporary shift in absolute thresholds. The damage has been found to occur in the synapses between the cochlea's inner hair cells and the auditory nerve, effectively severing part of the connection between the ear and the brain. This synaptopathy has been termed hidden hearing loss because its effects are not thought to be revealed in standard clinical, behavioral, or physiological measures of absolute threshold. It is currently unknown whether humans suffer from similar deficits after noise exposure. Even if synaptopathy occurs in humans, it remains unclear what the perceptual consequences might be or how they should best be measured. Here, we apply a simple theoretical model, taken from signal detection theory, to provide some predictions for what perceptual effects could be expected for a given loss of synapses. Predictions are made for a number of basic perceptual tasks, including tone detection in quiet and in noise, frequency discrimination, level discrimination, and binaural lateralization. The model's predictions are in line with the empirical observations that a 50% loss of synapses leads to changes in threshold that are too small to be reliably measured. Overall, the model provides a simple initial quantitative framework for understanding and predicting the perceptual effects of synaptopathy in humans.
- auditory perception
- signal detection theory