Western University research helps explain why seniors struggle with ‘cocktail-party’ noise

The buzzing crowd engaging at the interactive cocktail party at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis on Thursday, July 25th (Photo by Max Morse/WireImage). Max Morse/WireImage via Getty Images

A new study led by a Western University researcher suggests that older people have trouble zeroing in on any single conversation in a noisy room because of out-of-sync neural oscillations.

The research suggests that as the brain ages, it has a tougher time tracking speech rhythms and patterns.

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“What we found was that younger and older adults have different strategies for ‘listening closely’ to sounds,” said lead author Molly J. Henry of the Department of Psychology and the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University.

“Ideally, understanding how the brain balances different listening strategies might lead us to design better hearing devices if we know which sound features to enhance.”

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People are ordinarily able to tune into one conservation in a “sea of other noise” due to the so-called “cocktail party effect.” In those instances, specific electrical activity in the brain – or neural oscillations – lock in on the speech patterns of the person speaking and block out irrelevant auditory information.

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Researchers used electroencephalography to measure neural responses to the rhythms of sound and found significant differences in how younger and older adults process noise, with neural oscillations in older adults struggling to synchronize.

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