Musicians are at risk of hearing loss due to prolonged noise exposure, but they may also be at risk of early sub-clinical hearing damage, such as cochlear synaptopathy. In the current study, we investigated the effects of noise exposure on electrophysiological, behavioral and self-report correlates of hearing damage in young adult (age range = 18–27 years) musicians and non-musicians with normal audiometric thresholds. Early-career musicians (n = 76) and non-musicians (n = 47) completed a test battery including the Noise Exposure Structured Interview, pure-tone audiometry (PTA; 0.25–8 kHz), extended high-frequency (EHF; 12 and 16 kHz) thresholds, otoacoustic emissions (OAEs), auditory brainstem responses (ABRs), speech perception in noise (SPiN), and self-reported tinnitus, hyperacusis and hearing in noise difficulties. Total lifetime noise exposure was similar between musicians and non-musicians, the majority of which could be accounted for by recreational activities. Musicians showed significantly greater ABR wave I/V ratios than non-musicians and were also more likely to report experience of - and/or more severe - tinnitus, hyperacusis and hearing in noise difficulties, irrespective of noise exposure. A secondary analysis revealed that individuals with the highest levels of noise exposure had reduced outer hair cell function compared to individuals with the lowest levels of noise exposure, as measured by OAEs. OAE level was also related to PTA and EHF thresholds. High levels of noise exposure were also associated with a significant increase in ABR wave V latency, but only for males, and a higher prevalence and severity of hyperacusis. These findings suggest that there may be sub-clinical effects of noise exposure on various hearing metrics even at a relatively young age, but do not support a link between lifetime noise exposure and proxy measures of cochlear synaptopathy such as ABR wave amplitudes and SPiN. Closely monitoring OAEs, PTA and EHF thresholds when conventional PTA is within the clinically ‘normal’ range could provide a useful early metric of noise-induced hearing damage. This may be particularly relevant to early-career musicians as they progress through a period of intensive musical training, and thus interventions to protect hearing longevity may be vital.
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- noise exposure
- cochlear synaptopathy
- speech perception in noise
- otoacoustic emissions