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MSU assistant professor leads study on hearing disorders

September 29, 2009

For MSU researchers, a basic human function might hold the key to understanding confusing and complex disorders.

Laura Dilley, an assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, will lead a five-year, more than $450,000 study on how spoken words affect hearing impairment.

The National Science Foundation-funded grant will pay for research equipment and create between 15 and 20 part-time positions and one full-time position in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders. Dilley said 10 positions are filled.

“We need to understand more about how our minds are able to robustly understand language, because we have not yet been able to program computers to do this,” Dilley said. “Once we understand how language processing works normally, we will be in much better position to understand how it gets off track, whether the listener is another person or machine.”

Voice pitch, speech duration and volume play a role in understanding disorders such as dyslexia, stuttering and autism, Dilley said.

“My research has been showing that, contrary to the traditional view, these cues can be very important in understanding spoken words,” Dilley said. “The research holds potential to shed significant light on how normal speech perception takes place and what goes wrong with speech and language disorders.”

Research methods include participants providing feedback after listening to sample sounds, associate professor of psychology Devin McAuley said. McAuley helped analyze initial results for the experiment.

“Participants are listening to speech utterance and might be asked to report the final word they heard,” McAuley said. “They might be asked to do a simple task like judging a particular sound in what they hear, or
they may be asked to discriminate a particular sound like, ‘which of two words did you hear?’”

Michael Casby, a professor in and the former program director of the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, said Dilley’s research is a positive step for the department and MSU.

“Over 45 million Americans are afflicted with speech, language or hearing disorders,” Casby said. “Her research will assist in the amelioration of such disabilities.”

Before funding ends in September 2014, Dilley said she hopes to publish the results because it has the potential of helping people in the future.

“These results also have possibility of shedding light on what goes wrong in a number of disorders in which timing and or pitch patterns are disorders in perception or production of language,” Dilley said. “There is significant potential for this research to help people down the road.”

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