speech recognition

Making Sense of Sound

Rush College of Health Sciences

In most auditory testing, the emphasis is on accuracy in speech recognition, since speech is our primary means of communication. But myriad sounds beyond language are key to our understanding of the world around us.

“A car honking, a baby crying, a fire alarm — recognizing these sounds can be important to our safety,” explained Valeriy Shafiro, Ph.D. “And there are also lots of nonlinguistic environmental sounds we enjoy listening to: the sound of the ocean, the wind in the trees when we walk in the woods.” Shafiro, an associate professor of communication disorders and principal investigator in the Rush Auditory Research Laboratory, conducts research in hearing and speech perception that focuses on finding new ways to diagnose auditory deficits and improve communication abilities in adults. These new diagnostic techniques have the potential to improve the quality of life of a variety of audiology patients — even well beyond the groups Shafiro is currently studying.

Addressing a rehab deficit 

Much of Shafiro’s lab’s past work, which has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation (ASHFoundation) and the Hearing Health Foundation, formerly known as the Deafness Research Foundation, has assessed the ability of people with cochlear implants to recognize a variety of nonspeech sounds — a particularly useful means of auditory assessment in a large, urban medical center that treats many non-English speakers.

A recent study tested listeners’ ability to recognize those sounds with or without the contextual clues present in everyday life. For example, an ambiguous sound can be perceived as a burning fuse when preceded by the sound of a match being struck and followed by the sound of an explosion, but it may be perceived as bacon frying when surrounded by other kitchen sounds.

Credit: Rush University

Credit: Rush University

“Compared with people with normal hearing, people with cochlear implants show some pretty clear deficits in identifying environmental sounds as well as speech,” Shafiro said. “Research from several labs, including ours, shows the possibility for cochlear implant users to improve if they work on it. But there are few readily available opportunities for these patients to obtain rehabilitation, for reasons including travel difficulties, health care reimbursements and scope of practice.”

Shafiro is now evaluating the usefulness of Internet-based environmental sound and speech training for people who rely on cochlear implants in daily life. “A Randomized Controlled Trial to Evaluate the Benefits of an Internet-Based Auditory Training Program for Cochlear Implant Patients,” a two-year grant from the ASHFoundation, aims to help fill the rehabilitation deficit for adults who receive cochlear implants.

“With Internet access now widely available, patients can do the auditory exercises online, at their own pace and without having to travel,” Shafiro said. When completed, the study will give him and his colleagues a deeper understanding of the benefits and challenges of computerized auditory training.

Hearing-dementia link

Measuring listeners’ recognition of nonlinguistic sounds was also a component of a recent study from the Rush Auditory Research Laboratory in collaboration with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“Hearing, Speech and Episodic Memory in Older African-American and White Adults,” funded with a grant from the NIH, examined a topic of wide current interest: the relationship between aging, hearing loss and cognitive deficits. As Baby Boomers age, research like this has major implications for the health and well-being of older adults. “Some recent research has reported that people with a greater rate of age-related hearing loss also have a greater rate of cognitive decline,” Shafiro explained.

“Typical tests of working memory are based on retaining words or numbers, but we wanted to explore this further by measuring both nonspeech and speech perception.” 

Using tests previously designed by Stanley Sheft, senior researcher at the Rush Auditory Research Laboratory and principal investigator on the study, the team measured the ability of a cohort of community-dwelling older adults without known dementia to discriminate brief nonlinguistic sound patterns.

The addition of nonlinguistic sounds produced somewhat different results than those yielded by previous research. Although other studies have associated speech perception with cognitive performance, the Rush study did not find this correlation when measuring hearing thresholds or the ability to recognize speech in noise.

impact rush university.png

However, “We found a relationship between working memory and the ability to discriminate brief auditory patterns,” said Shafiro, who hopes to revisit the study cohort in the future to see whether the tests may be predictive of the trajectory of cognitive decline.

This article was repurposed with permission from Rush University Medical Center, and originally appeared in the Rush College of Health Sciences magazine Impact. Valeriy Shafiro, Ph.D., is a 2008 Emerging Research Grants recipient.

Print Friendly and PDF

Making Friends and Influencing People

By Kathi Mestayer

Lorrie Moore, the author of “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” was in town in Williamsburg, Virginia, giving a reading at Tucker Hall at the College of William and Mary. My friend Susan had invited me, and I actually remembered the author’s name and knew that book was somewhere on my shelf, so I said yes.

My husband Mac had read the book, and was sure I would like it. I managed to find it on our jumbled bookshelves, which are kind of in alphabetical order (for fiction, at least). And it was short, only 147 pages! Before long, I realized that I had already read it, too. Not because I remembered anything, mind you, but because my marks and scars were present pencil lines in the margins, and a few dog-eared pages. Mac never marks up a book, or dog-ears the pages, and it drives him crazy when I do. So, it’s usually easy to tell whether I’ve read a book. In this case, I was probably walking that fine line with my fine lines.

I got 33 pages into the book, and it was lively stuff. One passage I had circled (in ink!) was, “She inhaled and held the smoke deep inside, like the worst secret in the world, and then let it burst from her in a cry.” I love revisiting a book, like a stone skipping over water, hitting the high spots thanks to my notes.

So when the day of the reading arrived, I went to listen to Lorrie Moore read her favorite passages in her own voice.

Wishful Thinking

When I got to the lecture hall, I sat by Susan, who was fortunately in the second row, near the aisle. Someone introduced Lorrie Moore. I couldn’t hear most of that, but it didn’t really matter. Then she got up to read, holding a big, thick book (her latest), with a microphone clipped to her lapel.

I couldn’t hear a word of it. It seemed as though she was muttering softly, but I’m not a good judge of that. I leaned over and whispered to Susan that I was having trouble hearing and was going to sit in the front row. Well, Susan outed me immediately, and informed the guy who had introduced Lorrie that she wasn’t audible. While I tried to surreptitiously move to the very center of the front row, he asked Lorrie to hold the lapel mic in her hand, so it could be closer to her mouth.

balloons-popping.jpg

She did that for a few minutes, but it got awkward when she needed to hold the book, too. And when she held the mic in her hand, it was so close to her mouth that her speech was distorted, with the P’s and T’s sounding like balloons popping. Tiny balloons, but enough to muddy her speech. For me.

So, at the suggestion of a young man on my right, she put the mic back on her lapel, but closer to her face. She asked, “Can everyone hear me now?” I didn’t turn around to see the response behind me, but it was clear that she got some no’s because she started playing around with the mic and saying, “How about now?” And, “Now?”

That was when one of the professors leapt over the front two rows, got on the stage, took the big, regular-mic holder (which was empty), bent it around to the front of the lectern, and clipped the tiny lapel mic to it. Okay. It was closer to her mouth, and she could use her hands for other things.

Let the reading begin. Again.

This time, she read for about 20 minutes, and I still couldn’t hear clearly enough to know what she was mumbling into the mic, with the P’s and T’s popping again due to its proximity to her mouth. I sat there patiently, not wanting to be disruptive again, and thought about other things, in between the audience’s intermittent chuckling. To my credit, I did not get my phone out to check my email.

After she was done, and the Q&A period started, I slunk out of the room, as quietly as possible. Others were doing the same, so I felt a little less rude. The next day, I got an apologetic email from Susan.

Not Just Me

A couple of days later, I was in a gift shop downtown, and a young woman behind the counter asked if I had been at the reading the other night in Tucker Hall. I said yes. Turns out, she was sitting right behind me. When I mentioned that I had a really hard time hearing in that space, she replied, “Oh, I HATE that room!  It’s the worst one on campus! I can never hear in there.”

The good news is that, the next time Susan invited me to a reading, she made a point of saying they had gotten the good mic back up and running. And, in fairness, making an entire campus of classrooms and other spaces hearing-friendly will take time, money… and attention. In fact, I’ve already managed to get an FM system installed in two auditoriums in another building on campus. So, slowly, the system is getting better, one complaint at a time.

kathi mestayer headshot.jpg

I think of that passage I ink-circled, about inhaling smoke like a big secret and letting it burst forth. Advocating to hear can put you in the spotlight, uncomfortably, especially in a group situation, but we should let our needs burst forth to help others who are no doubt in the same situation.

Kathi Mestayer is a staff writer for Hearing Health magazine.

Print Friendly and PDF