Changes in the compressive nonlinearity of the cochlea during early aging: Estimates from distortion OAE Input/Output functions

Amanda J. Ortmann, Carolina Abdala

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13 Scopus citations


Objectives: The level-dependent growth of distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAEs) provides an indirect metric of cochlear compressive nonlinearity. Recent evidence suggests that aging reduces nonlinear distortion emissions more than those associated with linear reflection. Therefore, in this study, we generate input/output (I/O) functions from the isolated distortion component of the DPOAE to probe the effects of early aging on the compressive nonlinearity of the cochlea. Design: Thirty adults whose ages ranged from 18 to 64 years participated in this study, forming a continuum of young to middle-age subjects. When necessary for analyses, subjects were divided into a young-adult group with a mean age of 21 years, and a middle-aged group with a mean age of 52 years. All young-adult subjects and 11 of the middle-aged subjects had normal hearing; 4 middle-aged ears had slight audiometric threshold elevation at mid-to-high frequencies. DPOAEs (2f 1 - f 2) were recorded using primary tones swept upward in frequency from 0.5 to 8 kHz, and varied from 25 to 80 dB sound pressure level. The nonlinear distortion component of the total DPOAE was separated and used to create I/O functions at one-half octave intervals from 1.3 to 7.4 kHz. Four features of OAE compression were extracted from a fit to these functions: compression threshold, range of compression, compression slope, and low-level growth. These values were compared between age groups and correlational analyses were conducted between OAE compression threshold and age with audiometric threshold controlled. Results: Older ears had reduced DPOAE amplitude compared with young-adult ears. The OAE compression threshold was elevated at test frequencies above 2 kHz in the middle-aged subjects by 19 dB (35 versus 54 dB SPL), thereby reducing the compression range. In addition, middle-aged ears showed steeper amplitude growth beyond the compression threshold. Audiometric threshold was initially found to be a confound in establishing the relationship between compression and age; however, statistical analyses allowed us to control its variance. Correlations performed while controlling for age differences in high-frequency audiometric thresholds showed significant relationships between the DPOAE I/O compression threshold and age: Older subjects tended to have elevated compression thresholds compared with younger subjects and an extended range of monotonic growth. Conclusions: Cochlear manifestations of nonlinearity, such as the DPOAE, weaken during early aging, and DPOAE I/O functions become linearized. Commensurate changes in high-frequency audiometric thresholds are not sufficient to fully explain these changes. The results suggest that age-related changes in compressive nonlinearity could produce a reduced dynamic range of hearing, and contribute to perceptual difficulties in older listeners.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)603-614
Number of pages12
JournalEar and hearing
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016


  • Aging
  • Compressive nonlinearity
  • Otoacoustic emissions


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