Examining the context benefit in older adults: A combined behavioral-electrophysiologic word identification study


When listening to degraded speech, listeners can use high-level semantic information to support recognition. The literature contains conflicting findings regarding older listeners’ ability to benefit from semantic cues in recognizing speech, relative to younger listeners. Electrophysiologic (EEG) measures of lexical access (N400) often show that semantic context does not facilitate lexical access in older listeners; in contrast, auditory behavioral studies indicate that semantic context improves speech recognition in older listeners as much as or more than in younger listeners. Many behavioral studies of aging and the context benefit have employed signal degradation or alteration, whereas this stimulus manipulation has been absent in the EEG literature, a possible reason for the inconsistencies between studies. Here we compared the context benefit as a function of age and signal type, using EEG combined with behavioral measures. Non-native accent, a common form of signal alteration which many older adults report as a challenge in daily speech recognition, was utilized for testing. The stimuli included English sentences produced by native speakers of English and Spanish, containing target words differing in cloze probability. Listeners performed a word identification task while 32-channel cortical responses were recorded. Results show that older adults’ word identification performance was poorer in the low-predictability and non-native talker conditions than the younger adults’, replicating earlier behavioral findings. However, older adults did not show reduction or delay in the average N400 response as compared to younger listeners, suggesting no age-related reduction in predictive processing capability. Potential sources for discrepancies in the prior literature are discussed.