Starkey Research & Clinical Blog

A Pediatric Prescription for Listening in Noise

Crukley, J. & Scollie, S. (2012). Children’s speech recognition and loudness perception with the Desired Sensation Level v5 Quite and Noise prescriptions. American Journal of Audiology 21, 149-162.

This editorial discusses the clinical implications of an independent research study and does not represent the opinions of the original authors.

Most hearing aid prescription formulas attempt to balance audibility of sound with perception of loudness, while keeping the amplified sound within a patient’s dynamic range (Dillon, 2001; Gagne et al., 1991a; Gagne et al., 1991b; Seewald et al., 1985). Use of a prescriptively appropriate hearing aid fitting is particularly important for children with hearing loss. For the needs of language development, they benefit from a higher proportion of audible sound and broader bandwidth than diagnostically similar older children and adults (Pittman & Stelmachowicz, 2000; Stelmachowicz et al., 2000; Stelmachowicz et al., 2001; Stelmachowicz et al., 2004; Stelmachowicz et al., 2007).

Historically, provision of access to speech in quiet has been a primary driver in the development of prescription formulas for hearing aid.  However, difficulty understanding speech in noise is one of the primary complaints of all hearing aid users, including children. In a series of studies compared NAL-NL1 and DSL v4.1 fittings and examined children’s listening needs and preferences (Ching et al., 2010; Ching et al., 2010; Scollie et al., 2010) two distinct listening categories were identified: loud, noisy and reverberant environments and quiet or low-level listening situations. The investigators found that children preferred the DSL fitting in quiet conditions but preferred the NAL fitting for louder sounds and when listening in noisy environments. Examination of the electroacoustic differences between the two fittings showed that the DSL fittings provided more gain overall and approximately 10dB more low-frequency gain than the NAL-NL1 fittings.

To address the concerns of listening in noisy and reverberant conditions, DSL v5 includes separate prescriptions for quiet and noise. Relative to the formula for quiet conditions, the noise formula prescribes higher compression thresholds, lower overall gain, lower low-frequency gain and more relative gain in the high frequencies.  This study of Crukley and Scollie addressed whether the use of the DSL v5 Quiet and Noise formulae resulted in differences in consonant recognition in quiet, sentence recognition in noise and different loudness ratings.  Because of the lower gain in the noise formula, it was expected to reduce loudness ratings and consonant recognition scores in quiet because of potentially reduced audibility. There was no expected difference for speech recognition in noise, as the noise floor was considered the primary limitation to audibility in noisy conditions.

Eleven children participated in the study; five elementary school children with an average age of 8.85 years and six high school children with an average age of 15.18 years. All subjects were experienced, full-time hearing aid users with congenital, sensorineural hearing losses, ranging from moderate to profound.  All participants were fitted with behind-the-ear hearing aids programmed with two separate programs: one for DSL Quiet targets and one for DSL Noise targets. The Noise targets had, on average, 10dB lower low-frequency gain and 5dB lower high-frequency gain, relative to the Quiet targets. Testing took place in two classrooms: one at the elementary school and one at the high school.

Consonant recognition in quiet conditions was tested with the University of Western Ontario Distinctive Features Differences Test (UWO-DFD; Cheesman & Jamieson, 1996). Stimuli were presented at 50dB and 70dB SPL, by a male talker and a female talker. Sentence recognition in noise was performed with the Bamford-Kowal-Bench Speech in Noise Test (BKB-SIN; Niquette et al., 2003). BKB-SIN results are scored as the SNR at which 50% performance can be achieved (SNR-50).

Loudness testing was conducted with the Contour Test of Loudness Perception (Cox et al., 1997; Cox & Gray, 2001), using BKB sentences presented in ascending then descending steps of 4dB from 52dB to 80dB SPL. Subjects rated their perceived loudness on an 8-point scale ranging from “didn’t hear it” up to “uncomfortably loud” and indicated their response on a computer screen. Small children were assisted by a researcher, using a piece of paper with the loudness ratings, and then the researcher entered the response.

The hypotheses outlined above were generally supported by the results of the study. Consonant recognition scores in quiet were better at 70dB than 50dB for both prescriptions and there was no significant difference between the Quiet and Noise fittings. There was, however, a significant interaction between prescription and presentation level, showing that performance for the Quiet fittings was consistent at the two levels but was lower at 50dB than 70dB for the Noise fittings. The change in score from Quiet to Noise at 50dB was 4.2% on average, indicating that reduced audibility in the Noise fitting may have adversely affected scores at the lower presentation level. On the sentence recognition in noise test, BKB-SIN scores did not differ significantly between the Quiet and Noise prescriptions, with some subjects scoring better in the Quiet program, some scoring better in the Noise program and most not demonstrating any significant difference between the two. Loudness ratings were lower on average for the Noise prescription. When ratings for 52-68dB SPL and 72-80dB SPL were analyzed separately, there was no difference between the Quiet and Noise prescriptions for the lower levels but at 72dB and above, the Noise prescription yielded significantly lower loudness ratings.

Although the average consonant recognition scores for the Noise prescription were only slightly lower than those for the Quiet prescription, it may not be advisable to use the Noise prescription as the primary program for regular daily use, because of the risk of reduced audibility. This is especially true for pediatric hearing aid patients, for whom maximal audibility is essential for speech and language development. Rather, the Noise prescription is better used as an alternate program, to be accessed manually by the patient, teacher or caregiver, or via automatic classification algorithms within the hearing aid. Though the Noise prescription did not improve speech recognition in noise, it did not result in a decrement in performance and yielded lower loudness ratings, suggesting that in real world situations it would improve comfort in noise while still maintaining adequate speech intelligibility.

Many audiologists find that patients prefer a primary program set to a prescriptive formula (DSL v5, NAL-NL2 or proprietary targets) for daily use but appreciate a separate, manually accessible noise program with reduced low-frequency gain and increased noise reduction. This is true even for the majority of patients who have automatically switching primary programs, with built-in noise modes. Anecdotal remarks from adult patients using manually accessible noise programs agree with the findings of the present study, in that most people use them for comfort in noisy conditions and find that they are still able to enjoy conversation.

For the pediatric patient, prescription of environment specific memories should be done on a case-by-case basis. Patients functioning as teenagers might be capable of managing manual selection of a noise program in appropriate conditions. Those of a functionally younger age will require assistance from a supervising adult. Personalized, written instructions will assist adult caregivers to ensure that they understand which listening conditions may be uncomfortable and what actions should be taken to adjust the hearing aids. Most modern hearing aids feature some form of automatic environmental classification: ambient noise level estimation being one of the more robust classifications. Automatic classification and switching may be sufficient to address concerns of discomfort. However, the details of this behavior vary greatly among hearing aids. It is essential that the prescribing audiologist is aware of any automatic switching behavior and works to verify each of the accessible hearing aid memories.

Crukley and Scollie’s study supports the use of separate programs for everyday use and noisy conditions and indicates that children could benefit from this approach. The DSL Quiet and Noise prescriptive targets offer a consistent and verifiable method for this approach with children, while also providing potential guidelines for designing alternate noise programs for use by adults with hearing aids.



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