Cortical auditory evoked potentials (CAEPs) to tones and speech sounds were obtained in infants to: 1) further knowledge of auditory development above the level of the brainstem during the first year of life; 2) establish CAEP input-output functions for tonal and speech stimuli as a function of stimulus level and to 3) elaborate the data-base that establishes CAEP in infants tested while awake using clinically relevant stimuli, thus providing methodology that would have translation to pediatric audiological assessment. Hypotheses concerning CAEP development were that the latency and amplitude input-output functions would reflect immaturity in encoding stimulus level.
In a second experiment, infants were tested with the same stimuli used to evoke the CAEPs. Thresholds for these stimuli were determined using observer-based psychophysical techniques. The hypothesis was that the behavioral thresholds would be correlated with CAEP input-output functions because of shared cortical response areas known to be active in sound detection.
36 infants, between the ages of 4-12 months (mean= 8 months, s.d.=1.8 months) and 9 young adults (mean age 21 years) with normal hearing were tested. First, CAEPs amplitude and latency input-output functions were obtained for 4 tone bursts and 7 speech tokens. The tone bursts stimuli were 50 ms tokens of pure tones at 0.5, 1.0, 2.0 and 4.0 kHz. The speech sound tokens, /a/, /i/, /o/, /u/, /m/, /s/, and /∫/, were created from natural speech samples and were also 50 ms in duration. CAEPs were obtained for tone burst and speech token stimuli at 10 dB level decrements in descending order from 70 dB SPL. All CAEP tests were completed while the infants were awake and engaged in quiet play.
For the second experiment, observer-based psychophysical methods were used to establish perceptual threshold for the same speech sound and tone tokens.
Infant CAEP component latencies were prolonged by 100-150 ms in comparison to adults. CAEP latency-intensity input output functions were steeper in infants compared to adults. CAEP amplitude growth functions with respect to stimulus SPL are adult-like at this age, particularly for the earliest component, P1-N1.
Infant perceptual thresholds were elevated with respect to those found in adults. Furthermore, perceptual thresholds were higher, on average, than levels at which CAEPs could be obtained. When CAEP amplitudes were plotted with respect to perceptual threshold (dB SL), the infant CAEP amplitude growth slopes were steeper than in adults.
Although CAEP latencies indicate immaturity in neural transmission at the level of the cortex, amplitude growth with respect to stimulus SPL is adult-like at this age, particularly for the earliest component, P1-N1. The latency and amplitude input-output functions may provide additional information as to how infants perceive stimulus level. The reasons for the discrepancy between electrophysiologic and perceptual threshold may be due to immaturity in perceptual temporal resolution abilities and the broad-band listening strategy employed by infants.
The findings from the current study can be translated to the clinical setting. It is possible to use tonal or speech sound tokens to evoke CAEPs in an awake, passively alert infant, and thus determine whether these sounds activate the auditory cortex. This could be beneficial in the verification of hearing aid or cochlear implant benefit.