Jonathan Simon Awarded $149,000 Seed Grant

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Professor Jonathan Simon has been awarded a $149,000 Seed Grant from the University of Maryland Brain and Behavior Institute (BBI).  The study, entitled “Toward a non-linguistic measure of auditory processing deficits in older and younger monolingual and bilingual adults” will have a dual focus on how age and bilingualism affect auditory stream segregation ability.

The study is jointly led by Simon, who holds appointments with ECE, Biology and the Institute for Systems Research, Nick Pandža from the Applied Research Lab for Intelligence & Security (ARLIS), and Samira Anderson from UMD Department of Hearing & Speech Sciences.  Other members of the research team are Michael Johns, a post-doc at the Institute for Systems Research, and Stefanie Kuchinsky from the Audiology and Speech Pathology Center at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  Kuchinsky is also a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences.

In noisy environments, listeners must often distinguish between an acoustic signal (for instance, a speaker) from unrelated background noise.  This process is called “auditory stream segregation”.  For older listeners and individuals who speak multiple language, this process can require extra effort for listening.  Traditionally, when assessing hearing loss, testing relies on a patient’s recognition of sounds, words, and sentences that are almost always in English, which can be problematic for both native and non-native English speakers.  To address this issue, there is a need for a non-linguistic measure of auditory stream segregation that can assess shortfalls in auditory processing, regardless of the language history and abilities of the listener.

An alternative to traditional tests is to use stochastic figure-ground stimuli by creating an acoustic background of spectrally random pure tones (the “ground”) overlaid with a chord sequence built from the same set of tones by patterned instead of random (the “figure”). These non-language-based stimuli also engage auditory stream segregation mechanisms required for speech-in-noise recognition, thus bypassing the need for a language-based testing system.

The team will use a combination of neuroimaging, psychophysiological and behavioral measures to support two aims within their study.  The first aim is to test the hypothesis that aging contributes to the decline of hearing systems that support linguistic and non-linguistic auditory stream segregation.  The second aim is to test the hypothesis that language status for bilingual speakers changes the ability to support linguistic, but not non-linguistic, auditory stream segregation, thus showing that a poor hearing test result in speech-in-noise recognition, which is often observed in bilinguals is, in fact, related to performance in a non-dominant language.

The 2023 BBI Seed Grant program funds innovative collaborative work with a goal of solving compelling problems related to nervous system function in development and aging.  The program encourages cross-collaborations among neuroscientists, engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, physical scientists, cognitive scientists and humanities scholars.  Simon’s team represents this cross-collaboration of multiple disciplines.  Their ultimate goal is to use the research resulting from this grant to obtain future federal funding to examine the interaction between aging and bilingualism on auditory stream segregation by improving the validity of clinical auditory tests a variety of age spans and in non-native English speakers.




Published January 6, 2023