EEG activity as an objective measure of cognitive load during effortful listening: A study on pediatric subjects with bilateral, asymmetric sensorineural hearing loss

Pasquale Marsella, Alessandro Scorpecci, Giulia Cartocci, Sara Giannantonio, Anton Giulio Maglione, Isotta Venuti, Ambra Brizi, Fabio Babiloni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objectives Deaf subjects with hearing aids or cochlear implants generally find it challenging to understand speech in noisy environments where a great deal of listening effort and cognitive load are invested. In prelingually deaf children, such difficulties may have detrimental consequences on the learning process and, later in life, on academic performance. Despite the importance of such a topic, currently, there is no validated test for the assessment of cognitive load during audiological tasks. Recently, alpha and theta EEG rhythm variations in the parietal and frontal areas, respectively, have been used as indicators of cognitive load in adult subjects. The aim of the present study was to investigate, by means of EEG, the cognitive load of pediatric subjects affected by asymmetric sensorineural hearing loss as they were engaged in a speech-in-noise identification task. Methods Seven children (4F and 3M, age range = 8–16 years) affected by asymmetric sensorineural hearing loss (i.e. profound degree on one side, mild-to-severe degree on the other side) and using a hearing aid only in their better ear, were included in the study. All of them underwent EEG recording during a speech-in-noise identification task: the experimental conditions were quiet, binaural noise, noise to the better hearing ear and noise to the poorer hearing ear. The subjects’ Speech Recognition Thresholds (SRT) were also measured in each test condition. The primary outcome measures were: frontal EEG Power Spectral Density (PSD) in the theta band and parietal EEG PSD in the alpha band, as assessed before stimulus (word) onset. Results No statistically significant differences were noted among frontal theta power levels in the four test conditions. However, parietal alpha power levels were significantly higher in the “binaural noise” and in the “noise to worse hearing ear” conditions than in the “quiet” and “noise to better hearing ear” conditions (p < 0.001). SRT scores were consistent with task difficulty, but did not correlate with alpha and theta power level variations. Conclusion This is the first time that EEG has been applied to children with sensorineural hearing loss with the purpose of studying the cognitive load during effortful listening. Significantly higher parietal alpha power levels in two of three noisy conditions, compared to the quiet condition, are consistent with increased cognitive load. Specifically, considering the time window of the analysis (pre-stimulus), parietal alpha power levels may be a measure of cognitive functions such as sustained attention and selective inhibition. In this respect, the significantly lower parietal alpha power levels in the most challenging listening condition (i.e. noise to the better ear) may be attributed to loss of attention and to the subsequent fatigue and “withdrawal” from the task at hand.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1 2017


  • Alpha
  • Children
  • Cognitive load
  • Electroencephalography
  • Hearing loss
  • Listening effort

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Otorhinolaryngology


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