Five hundred million people with hearing loss struggle daily to understand speech in noisy environments. This disability undermines health and social integration, costs hundreds of billions annually, and will worsen in coming years due to aging populations. One of the primary deficits in hearing loss is an inability to selectively attend to one talker among others – the so-called “cocktail party effect”. A neuroscientific understanding of this problem could improve audiological diagnosis and treatment, and will show how the brain derives intelligible percepts from corrupted sensory inputs.
The neural bases of speech processing and attention are fundamentally interactive and dynamic. To address them, researchers must use techniques that quantify both where and when activity occurs in the brain. Traditional electroencephalography (EEG) can specify when it occurs, but only with advanced mathematical algorithms can EEG be used as a true imaging modality – to specify where and when. Furthermore, an investigator must master analyses that characterize the attention and speech signals themselves, and to relate them across regions.
Unfortunately, few research laboratories have all the resources necessary to address this complex problem. However the host and visiting fellow, Dr. Murray at the University of Lausanne and Dr. Miller from the University of California, not only share scientific hypotheses about attention to speech but together possess the experimental and analytic tools to test them. This award would thus enable a unique and vital international collaboration that brings the world’s most sophisticated techniques to bear on this urgent public health challenge.