Can cochlear implants detect vocal emotions?

Cochlear implants can help people with hearing loss perceive acoustic stimuli. Unlike hearing aids, which usually only amplify the volume of sound, electronic hearing aids directly stimulate the hearing nerve. But can these implants also register “nuances” in communication? After all, when one perceives spoken content, for example when speaking to someone, it is often not just what is said, but how it is said.

Scientists at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany have studied this question and, in a comprehensive study, they have now established that the perception of vocal emotions is significantly reduced in people with cochlear implants. . They report the results of their research in the current issue of the scientific journal Ear and hearing.

Distinguish between scary and angry voices

“Research related to cochlear implants has so far mainly focused on understanding speech,” says Celina von Eiff, who studied the subject as part of her doctoral thesis and led the study at the ‘University of Jena. “So we focused on the ability to perceive vocal emotions. Experts consider this to be particularly important for social interactions and quality of life.

For their study, the Jena researchers compared the hearing performance of 25 implant wearers with that of 25 people with normal hearing, with the same age and gender composition in both groups. The test participants played “pseudo-words” – meaningless words – which were previously recorded by some speakers, with different emotions. The recordings were transformed vocally during the experiment, with vocal parameters such as pitch or timbre being systematically changed, either selectively or in combination. Participants were asked to decide whether a played voice sounded fear or anger.

Develop more effective training devices and programs

“We found that the group with cochlear implants had lower scores overall when it comes to recognizing vocal emotions,” says Celina von Eiff. “While people with normal hearing were able to use the patch and height to a similar extent for recognition, it was surprising how much more implant users were oriented toward the patch. Some of them can use it very well to recognize vocal emotions. Researchers at the University of Jena also learned from a companion survey that prosthetic users with better perception of vocal emotions reported better quality of life.

The results of the Jena study can be used, for example, to develop even better cochlear implants. “Within our team, we are also currently working on the development and evaluation of interventions for people with cochlear implants that build on this research,” says Celina von Eiff. “For example, we can currently offer interested people the opportunity to participate in a scientifically based training on the perception of vocal emotions as part of a study.”


von Eiff CI, Skuk VG, Zäske R, et al. Parameter-specific morphing reveals the contributions of timbre to the perception of vocal emotions in cochlear implant users. Ear and hearing. Published online January 6, 2022. doi:10.1097 / AUD.00000000000001181

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