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Tufts research will explore role of music in understanding speech

Veneklasen Foundation grant supports novel study that could enhance pitch perception for cochlear implant users

Can learning to play musical scales improve the understanding of human speech?

A Tufts project funded by the Paul S. Veneklasen Research Foundation aims to find out. The effort is focused on speech perception in people who rely on cochlear implants, or CI users. A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that provides a sense of sound to people who are deaf or very hard of hearing. It works by providing electrical stimulation to the hearing nerve of the inner ear, which carries the signals to the brain.

Aniruddh Patel, a professor in psychology, has received just over $20,000 for phase one of the project. The research explores whether people with cochlear implants who learn to play simple melodic patterns on an electronic piano keyboard can then improve their perception of pitch in the human voice.

The findings could lead to novel training programs that enhance the CI user’s experience of sound, including nuances of the human voice.

Phase one involves developing the technical interface: an electronic keyboard attached to a tablet on which a CI user would play musical scales and other simple melodic patterns that range in pitch (low to high and high to low).

Patel, a neuroscientist, will develop the device with Thomas Colgrove, A16, a computer science major (with a minor in music engineering). Colgrove developed his expertise in the course Music Apps on the iPad, taught by Paul Lehrman, AG10, a lecturer in music and a pioneer in the field of computer music, and Ming Chow, a lecturer in computer science.

“I am very grateful to the Veneklasen Foundation for recognizing our research’s potential,” says Patel, author of Music, Language, and the Brain. “We have great resources here at Tufts to enhance the quality of life for cochlear implant users and, at the same time, advance our understanding of how musical training can impact the brain’s processing of speech.”

Strengthening pitch perception

In a hearing person, the brain’s ability to detect pitch gives shape and color to speech. High or low pitch might differentiate, for instance, between a statement or a question. It also helps express emotion. “Being able to follow pitch in a conversation improves what you can hear and how you understand,” says Patel.

A cochlear implant, which electrically stimulates the auditory nerve, allows people to understand a conversation in person or by telephone, but recognizing pitch remains elusive. “We know CI users have difficulty with pitch,” says Patel. “The cues provided by the implant are very weak.”

Keystrokes and visual cues reinforce learning

Patel’s keyboard-tablet interface is the first “complete sensory motor approach” to strengthen cochlear implant users’ ability to read those signals. He will train the CI users to associate what they see on the tablet—various scales that they will play themselves—with changes in pitch.

“Pitch then becomes connected to both movement—the keystrokes they make with their fingers—and to visual cues—the changing scales they see on the tablet,” he says. “This way we are giving the brain three information pathways into understanding pitch, and we believe together they will increase a person’s ability to recognize and remember pitch patterns, including those in human speech.”

Once the interface is completed this summer, Patel will proceed with testing, pending further funding. The testing will be done with Dr. Charles Limb, a cochlear implant surgeon and director of the Douglas Grant Cochlear Implant Center at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine.

Cochlear implant devices were FDA-approved for adults in 1985 and for children in 1990. Today more than 219,000 people worldwide and more than 70,000 in the United States have received them.

The Paul S. Veneklasen Research Foundation sponsors scientific research in acoustics and in related areas that include any combination of visual and performing arts or visual arts in combination with background music.