Many individuals with seemingly normal hearing abilities struggle to understand speech in noisy backgrounds. To understand why this might be the case, we investigated the neural representation of speech in the auditory midbrain of gerbils with "hidden hearing loss" through noise exposure that increased hearing thresholds only temporarily. In noise-exposed animals, we observed significantly increased neural responses to speech stimuli, with a more pronounced increase at moderate than at high sound intensities. Noise exposure reduced discriminability of neural responses to speech in background noise at high sound intensities, with impairment most severe for tokens with relatively greater spectral energy in the noise-exposure frequency range (2-4 kHz). At moderate sound intensities, discriminability was surprisingly improved, which was unrelated to spectral content. A model combining damage to high-threshold auditory nerve fibers with increased response gain of central auditory neurons reproduced these effects, demonstrating that a specific combination of peripheral damage and central compensation could explain listening difficulties despite normal hearing thresholds.
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- inferior colliculus
- speech in noise
- extracellular recordings
- hearing loss