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Hearing in Complex Environments: Auditory Gain Control, Attention, and Hearing Loss


Listening in noisy or complex sound environments is difficult for individuals with normal hearing and can be a debilitating impairment for those with hearing loss. Extracting meaningful information from a complex acoustic environment requires the ability to accurately encode specific sound features under highly variable listening conditions and segregate distinct sound streams from multiple overlapping sources. The auditory system employs a variety of mechanisms to achieve this auditory scene analysis. First, neurons across levels of the auditory system exhibit compensatory adaptations to their gain and dynamic range in response to prevailing sound stimulus statistics in the environment. These adaptations allow for robust representations of sound features that are to a large degree invariant to the level of background noise. Second, listeners can selectively attend to a desired sound target in an environment with multiple sound sources. This selective auditory attention is another form of sensory gain control, enhancing the representation of an attended sound source while suppressing responses to unattended sounds. This review will examine both “bottom-up” gain alterations in response to changes in environmental sound statistics as well as “top-down” mechanisms that allow for selective extraction of specific sound features in a complex auditory scene. Finally, we will discuss how hearing loss interacts with these gain control mechanisms, and the adaptive and/or maladaptive perceptual consequences of this plasticity.