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Two Researchers Receive $437,137 Grant to Study Infant Hearing Loss


Deborah von Hapsburg, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology at UTHSC’s Knoxville campus, and Jessica Hay, PhD, from the Department of Psychology at UT Knoxville, have received a grant.

Deborah von Hapsburg, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s (UTHSC) Knoxville campus, and Jessica Hay, PhD, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have received a grant totaling $437,137 from the National Institutes of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, a subsidiary of the National Institutes of Health. The award will be used to study the effect of hearing loss on the perception and production of canonical syllables during the babbling stage of speech development. The award for the study titled, “Canonical Syllable Production and Perception in Infants with Hearing Loss,” will be funded over a three-year period.

In typical development, infants learn perceptual categories for vowels and consonants through listening to ambient language input, and they develop perceptual or listening preferences for sounds and sound sequences that are more familiar to them. Frequently heard sounds in the ambient language tend to contribute to familiarity and thus listening preferences for these sounds. During the babbling period, prior to saying words, infants produce many strings of syllables such as “ma ma ma or da da da.” These self-produced syllables are also heard by infants, thereby, having the potential to influence perceptual preferences for speech sounds in early development. It is thought that babbling allows infants to practice producing the syllables they will use for first word production later in development. Currently, it is unknown to what extent infants develop perceptual preferences for the syllables they produce during the canonical babbling period at 6 to 10 months of age.

Congenital hearing impairment prevents infants from hearing the consonants and vowels in the ambient language, affecting when and how infants begin to babble. However, it is not known how hearing loss affects infants’ listening preferences for the babbled syllables they produce once they have been fitted with hearing aid devices.

For this study, Drs. von Hapsburg and Hay will focus on understanding how the distributional properties of self-produced syllables affect perceptual preferences for syllables in normal hearing and hearing impaired infants. It is expected that infants with normal hearing will develop listening preferences for syllables that begin with consonants such as “d” or “t”; whereas, infants with hearing loss will develop listening preferences for syllables with consonants that are produced at the lips, “ba or ma.” These predictions are based on observations of babbling behaviors in infants with normal and impaired hearing, respectively.

“We hope the project will improve scientific knowledge in the fields of developmental speech perception and production because it seeks to understand the relationship between perceptual and motor learning in the same infants,” said Dr. von Hapsburg. “Additionally, this research will have a sustained impact on the field of speech perception in the area of statistical learning as it will provide an account for how self-generated input from canonical babbling contributes to perceptual preferences in early speech development.”

Ultimately, the results of this study may contribute to improved therapeutic outcomes in children with hearing loss.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.