Impact of Effortful Word Recognition on Supportive Neural Systems Measured by Alpha and Theta Power

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OBJECTIVES: The goal of this study was to use theta and alpha electroencephalography (EEG) frequency power and self-report measures to examine performance monitoring, cognitive inhibition, and perceived effort required for speech understanding in noise. It was hypothesized that with a linear increase in word recognition task difficulty, there would be a linear increase in listening effort and word recognition performance would decrease in the challenging conditions. In addition, theta and alpha power would have an inverted U-shape across easy to challenging listening conditions. The inverted U-shape would reflect the neural underpinnings of listening effort that cannot be measured by task performance alone. DESIGN: EEG data were collected in 34 normal-hearing adults (18 to 33 years old) during the Words-In-Noise (WIN) test, which was presented in sound field. EEG frequency data were averaged and analyzed at three frontal channels for theta power (4 to 8 Hz), which is thought to reflect performance monitoring, and three parietal channels for alpha power (8 to 12 Hz), which is thought to reflect cognitive inhibition. A ten-point visual analog scale was administered after each WIN signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) condition to capture self-reported required and invested listening effort (RLE and ILE, respectively). The WIN SNR conditions were presented in descending and random order. RESULTS: The SNR presentation (descending or random SNR) had a null effect on word recognition performance; however, presentation did have an effect on theta power, alpha power, and ILE. When controlling for presentation, there were significant effects of SNR and presentation on both theta and alpha frequency power. Theta and alpha power had an inverted U-shape as a function of SNR from easy to challenging, with peak power in the moderate SNR conditions. RLE and ILE both significantly increased as task difficulty increased as expected; however, RLE showed a stronger relation to task performance than ILE. Alpha power was a significant predictor of RLE, ILE, and WIN performance when controlling for SNR. CONCLUSIONS: The elevated theta and alpha power in the easy to moderate SNRs and alpha power predicting self-reported listening effort suggest the activation of supportive neural systems during word recognition that could be considered a marker of listening effort. Moreover, the measures of neural support systems and listening effort were independent from task performance, which is a key element to further understanding the neural bases for listening effort. In the context of the broader literature, these results are consistent with (1) a parietal alpha role in supporting inhibitory control to suppress irrelevant information and (2) a frontal theta role in supporting performance monitoring in difficult listening conditions where speech recognition is feasible.