Differences in hearing acuity among “normal-hearing” young adults modulate the neural basis for speech comprehension

Yune S. Lee, Arthur Wingfield, Nam Eun Min, Ethan Kotloff, Murray Grossman, Jonathan E. Peelle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


In this paper, we investigate how subtle differences in hearing acuity affect the neural systems supporting speech processing in young adults. Auditory sentence comprehension requires perceiving a complex acoustic signal and performing linguistic operations to extract the correct meaning. We used fMRI to monitor human brain activity while adults aged 18–41 listened to spoken sentences. The sentences varied in their level of syntactic processing demands, containing either a subject-relative or object-relative center-embedded clause. All participants self-reported normal hearing, confirmed by audiometric testing, with some variation within a clinically normal range. We found that participants showed activity related to sentence processing in a left-lateralized frontotemporal network. Although accuracy was generally high, participants still made some errors, which were associated with increased activity in bilateral cingulo-opercular and frontoparietal attention networks. A whole-brain regression analysis revealed that activity in a right anterior middle frontal gyrus (aMFG) component of the frontoparietal attention network was related to individual differences in hearing acuity, such that listeners with poorer hearing showed greater recruitment of this region when successfully understanding a sentence. The activity in right aMFG’s for listeners with poor hearing did not differ as a function of sentence type, suggesting a general mechanism that is independent of linguistic processing demands. Our results suggest that even modest variations in hearing ability impact the systems supporting auditory speech comprehension, and that auditory sentence comprehension entails the coordination of a left perisylvian network that is sensitive to linguistic variation with an executive attention network that responds to acoustic challenge.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberENEURO.0263-17.2018
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2018


  • Compensation
  • FMRI
  • Hearing
  • Language
  • Speech
  • Young adults


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