Ruth Litovsky

Position title: Professor


Phone: (608) 262-5045

Ruth Litovsky headshot


Communication Sciences and Disorders; Surgery; Otolaryngology


Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

Research Description:

HOW CAN HUMANS UNDERSTAND SPEECH and localize sound IN NOISY ENVIRONMENTS? The research in our lab focuses on the ability of humans to function in complex auditory environments, such as classrooms, restaurants, playgrounds and “cocktail parties”. In order to understand how the brain determines the location and the content of important sounds we study hearing in adults and in children with normal hearing, as well as individuals with impaired hearing. In the laboratory environment we simulate aspects of “real world” listening situations. For example, can we ignore irrelevant sounds more easily if they are spatially separated from the speech we want to hear? Our methods include behavioral tasks, eye tracking, pupillometry and functional near infrared spectroscopy to examine neural signatures for auditory processing and cognitive load. DEVELOPMENT OF BINAURAL HEARING IN TYPICALLY-DEVELOPING CHILDREN Children spend many hours a day in enclosed spaces, and they are known to be worse than adults at ignoring information from echoes and hearing speech in noise. We study what challenges they face in simulated complex environments using a “listening game” platform with software that allows the child to interact with the computer, receive reinforcement and feedback. We study the maturation of these abilities in typically-developing children and the relationship to non-auditory measures, such as speech production, phonological awareness, vocabulary acquisition, non-verbal IQ, word learning, etc. ADULTS WHO ARE DEAF AND USE BILATERAL COCHLEAR IMPLANTS We find significant benefits from the use of two implants compared with one implant: improved speech understanding in the presence of competing speech, and improved localization of sounds. However, the magnitude and type of advantage seen across patients varies greatly. A known problem is that bilateral CI users are essentially fitted with two separate monaural systems that are not synchronized. In addition, binaural benefits may be reduced because many CI users undergo auditory deprivation prior to being implanted, with the likely possibility that there occurs degeneration of auditory neurons. We study how the loss of binaural synchrony is important by using customized research processors to bypass the clinical processors. The devices are engineered in such a way that they provide precise binaural cues directly to pairs of electrodes in the right and left ears, with precise synchronization. This experimental approach enables us to measure the extent to which bilateral CI users are sensitive to auditory cues that we know to be important and to be relied on by listeners who are normal-hearing.  EMERGENCE OF SPATIAL HEARING SKILLS AND NON-AUDITORY SKILLS IN CHILDREN WHO USE COCHLEAR IMPLANTS A growing number of children world-wide have been implanted bilaterally, and more recently children with one good ear are being considered candidates for a CI in the deaf ear. We measure how well the children can discriminate sounds from right-vs-left, and also how well they achieve more complex, sound localization abilities. We have found that factors such as age of implantation, amount of bilateral experience and chronological age at the time of testing may be significant.

Key Words:

Auditory development, deafness, neuroimaging, auditory plasticity

Link to Lab Website

Link to Publications