Behavioral tests are currently the gold standard in measuring speech intelligibility. However, these tests can be difficult to administer in young children due to factors such as motivation, linguistic knowledge and cognitive skills. It has been shown that measures of neural envelope tracking can be used to predict speech intelligibility and overcome these issues. However, its potential as an objective measure for speech intelligibility in noise remains to be investigated in preschool children. Here, we evaluated neural envelope tracking as a function of signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) in 14 5-year-old children. We examined EEG responses to natural, continuous speech presented at different SNRs ranging from -8 (very difficult) to 8 dB SNR (very easy). As expected delta band (0.5-4 Hz) tracking increased with increasing stimulus SNR. However, this increase was not strictly monotonic as neural tracking reached a plateau between 0 and 4 dB SNR, similarly to the behavioral speech intelligibility outcomes. These findings indicate that neural tracking in the delta band remains stable, as long as the acoustical degradation of the speech signal does not reflect significant changes in speech intelligibility. Theta band tracking (4-8 Hz), on the other hand, was found to be drastically reduced and more easily affected by noise in children, making it less reliable as a measure of speech intelligibility. By contrast, neural envelope tracking in the delta band was directly associated with behavioral measures of speech intelligibility. This suggests that neural envelope tracking in the delta band is a valuable tool for evaluating speech-in-noise intelligibility in preschoolers, highlighting its potential as an objective measure of speech in difficult-to-test populations.
Competing Interest Statement
The authors have declared no competing interest.