On The Frontier: Vocal Emotion Communication in Children with Cochlear Implants

Jun 27, 2022 | House Institute Foundation, Research

THE IMPORTANCE OF EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION

Emotional communication is a cornerstone of human interaction and social development. It plays such a vital role that children learn to understand vocal emotion (e.g., “motherese”) well before understanding speech.

Unfortunately, cochlear implant (CI) users must listen with highly degraded sound cues due to the device’s limitations. Individuals with CIs frequently demonstrate significant difficulty recognizing vocal emotions compared to their normal-hearing counterparts.

Cochlear implant-mediated perception and production of voice emotion is a crucial but relatively understudied area of research. A rich understanding of voice emotion auditory processing offers opportunities to improve CI signal processing design and develop training programs benefiting CI performance. 

Therefore, HIF awarded resident cochlear implant research scientist John Galvin, Ph.D., and Co-PI Monita Chatterjee, Ph.D. of Boys Town in Nebraska, a grant for a one-year study on vocal emotion communication in children with cochlear implants. 

AUDITORY EMOTION PERCEPTION IN COCHLEAR IMPLANTS

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted electrical devices that allow people with severe to profound hearing loss to process sound. Over the past few decades, CI development has made tremendous strides and advancements. 

Despite great advancements, limitations remain within present-day CI systems. Auditory emotion perception is limited for more than 350,000 cochlear implant patients worldwide. The cochlear implant conveys little voice pitch information (the primary cue for auditory emotion perception). Poor emotional communication has been shown to negatively impact adult cochlear implant patients’ quality of life and may increase social isolation. For children with cochlear implants, poor emotional communication may limit speech and social development. 

HOPES IN NEW RESEARCH

This research aims to better understand factors limiting spoken emotion perception and production in children with cochlear implants. The study will explore the effects of early implantation and access to early acoustic hearing on emotional communication in children. Several innovative approaches will be used to understand emotional communication in children with cochlear implants, including measuring perception and production of “natural” emotional speech (as opposed to lab-based, scripted speech), characterizing children’s utilization of acoustic cues to emotion (e.g., voice pitch, duration, intensity), and exploring the links between emotion perception and production. 

Findings from this study may help to guide new technology to improve pitch perception in cochlear implants and highlight the importance of emotional communication for rehabilitation programs.

HIF funds investigator-initiated research studies that demonstrate a potential to serve as a foundation for future high-impact research studies. The grantmaking process emulates the rigor of the National Institutes of Health funding through external review. HIF-funded studies are vetted for their contribution to science and innovation.

To help support future investigator-initiated studies at HIF, invest today.