Speech-in-noise comprehension difficulties are common among the elderly population, yet traditional objective measures of speech perception are largely insensitive to this deficit, particularly in the absence of clinical hearing loss. In recent years, a growing body of research in young normal-hearing adults has demonstrated that high-level features related to speech semantics and lexical predictability elicit strong centro-parietal negativity in the EEG signal around 400 ms following the word onset. Here we investigate effects of age on cortical tracking of these word-level features within a two-talker speech mixture, and their relationship with self-reported difficulties with speech-in-noise understanding. While undergoing EEG recordings, younger and older adult participants listened to a continuous narrative story in the presence of a distractor story. We then utilized forward encoding models to estimate cortical tracking of three speech features: 1) "semantic" dissimilarity of each word relative to the preceding context, 2) lexical surprisal for each word, and 3) overall word audibility. Our results revealed robust tracking of all three features for attended speech, with surprisal and word audibility showing significantly stronger contributions to neural activity than dissimilarity. Additionally, older adults exhibited significantly stronger tracking of surprisal and audibility than younger adults, especially over frontal electrode sites, potentially reflecting increased listening effort. Finally, neuro-behavioral analyses revealed trends of a negative relationship between subjective speech-in-noise perception difficulties and the model goodness-of-fit for attended speech, as well as a positive relationship between task performance and the goodness-of-fit, indicating behavioral relevance of these measures. Together, our results demonstrate the utility of modeling cortical responses to multi-talker speech using complex, word-level features and the potential for their use to study changes in speech processing due to aging and hearing loss.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience