Background: Multiple Sclerosis (MS) pathology is likely to disrupt central auditory pathways, thereby affecting an individual's ability to discriminate speech from noise. Despite the importance of speech discrimination in daily communication, it's characterization in the context of MS remains limited. This cross-sectional study evaluated speech discrimination in MS under "real world" conditions where sentences were presented in ecologically valid multi-talker speech or broadband noise at several signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs). Methods: Pre-recorded Bamford-Kowal-Bench sentences were presented at five signal-to-noise ratios (SNR) in one of two background noises: speech-weighted noise and eight-talker babble. All auditory stimuli were presented via headphones to control (n = 38) and MS listeners with mild (n = 20), moderate (n = 16) and advanced (n = 10) disability. Disability was quantified by the Kurtzke Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) and scored by a neurologist. All participants passed a routine audiometric examination. Results: Despite normal hearing, MS psychometric discrimination curves which model the relationship between signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and sentence discrimination accuracy in speech-weighted noise and babble did not change in slope (sentences/dB) but shifted to higher SNRs (dB) compared to controls. The magnitude of the shift in the curve systematically increased with greater disability. Furthermore, mixed-effects models identified EDSS score as the most significant predictor of speech discrimination in noise (odds ratio = 0.81; p < 0.001). Neither age, sex, disease phenotype or disease duration were significantly associated with speech discrimination performance in noise. Only MS listeners with advanced disability self-reported audio-attentional difficulty in a questionnaire designed to reflect auditory processing behaviours in daily life. Conclusion: Speech discrimination performance worsened systematically with greater disability, independent of age, sex, education, disease duration or disease phenotype. These results identify novel auditory processing deficits in MS and highlight that speech discrimination tasks may provide a viable non-invasive and sensitive means for disease monitoring in MS.
- Auditory processing deficits
- Daily communication
- Disease severity
- Multiple sclerosis
- Speech discrimination in noise