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The listening challenge: How ageing brains adapt

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - AUDADAPT (The listening challenge: How ageing brains adapt)

Reporting period: 2020-07-01 to 2021-12-31

Humans in principle adapt well to sensory degradations. In order to do so, our cognitive strategies need to adjust accordingly (a process we term “adaptive control”). The auditory sensory modality poses an excellent, although under-utilised, research model to understand these adjustments, their neural basis, and their large variation amongst individuals. Hearing abilities begin to decline already in the fourth life decade, and our guiding hypothesis is that individuals differ in the extent to which they are neurally, cognitively, and psychologically equipped to adapt to this sensory decline.

Our project pursued three specific aims: (1) We will first specify the neural dynamics of “adaptive control” in the under-studied target group of middle-aged listeners compared to young listeners. We will employ advanced multi-modal neuroimaging (EEG and fMRI) markers and a flexible experimental design of listening challenges. (2) Based on the parameters established in (1), we will explain inter-individual differences in adaptive control in a large-scale sample of middle-aged listeners, and aim to re-test each individual again after approximately two years. These data will lead to (3) where we will employ statistical models that incorporate a broader context of audiological, cognitive skill, and personality markers and reconstructs longitudinal “trajectories of change” in adaptive control over the middle-age life span.

Pursuing these aims has brought us closer to a new theoretical framework for the adaptive ageing brain. The project broke new ground for future classification and treatment of hearing difficulties. Not least, AUDADAPT has challenged and transformed current understanding and concepts of the ageing human individual.
The ERC Consolidator project AUDADAPT (2016–2021) isolated the determinants of successful adaptation to sensory and cognitive change in healthy ageing. The project provided a unique selec-tion of behaviour, EEG, and functional MR from a community cohort of N=160 middle-aged and older adults at two time points two years apart.

The AUDADAPT project can be characterised and judged against its three specific aims, in tune with the overarching project objectives.
1. PUSHING THE ENVELOPE HOW WE CONCEIVE OF AUDITION IN MIDDLE-AGE ADULTHOOD: Our work did entail audiological testing on one end, and it entailed a large-scale, whole-brain characterization of brain dynamics on the other end. Our project measured and modelled the sensory and cognitive processes in middle-aged adult, prior to or in the absence of major hearing problems, as a process that entails all these variables. The AUDADAPT project has helped expose the limits that “classical” hearing assessments hold in explaining individual environment-to-brain and brain-to-overt-behavioural processes.
2. FUSING PSYCHOLOGICAL AND NEUROSCIENTIFIC MODELLING OF AUDITION IN MIDDLE-AGE ADULTHOOD: In interdigitated analysis work packages, we have modelled the neural results along with the data on cognitive fitness, personality structure, as well as objective and subjective measures of hearing acuity in a multivariate framework. This modelling work has allowed us to better understand the interplay of neural and psychological mechanisms which determine how well an ageing listener adapts to sensory decline.
3. PROVIDING NEW A LONGITUDINAL PERSPECTIVE IN THE COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE OF HEARING AND COMMUNICATION. Longitudinal data are of the essence in any form of life-span research. Any attempt at causal inference is greatly facilitated if temporal precedence and observed changes can be substantiated by repeated measures over time in the same cohort. Thus, the ERC AUDADAPT cohort is hardly precedented and of future value to our field: More than N=160 listeners aged 40 to 80 have provided demographic, basic health, personality, audiological, cognitive, and neuroscientific data (EEG, fMRI) at least once. A subset of N=120 has been tested again with identical setup after a period of 18–24 months. All data will be and largely are already entirely open-access. See https://osf.io/28r57/

Not least, the AUDADAPT project has contributed to theorising and conceptualising the ageing listening brain in a series of well-noted review and opinion articles.
As an impulse for future research as well as for established audiological practice, the ERC AUDADAPT project has exposed sharply the limits of conventional demographic and audiological measures in predicting an individual’s hearing success as we age. The project has further shown that established neural measures from EEG and fMRI, when studied in isolation, are also limited in meaningfully modelling the perceptual differences between individual listeners. Not least, the open data the project has provided will serve future, more translational and solution-oriented studies as a valuable starting point.
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