The Pupil Dilation Response During Speech Perception in Dark and Light: The Involvement of the Parasympathetic Nervous System in Listening Effort

Yang Wang, Sophia E. Kramer, Dorothea Wendt, Graham Naylor, Thomas Lunner, Adriana A. Zekveld

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14 Citations (Scopus)


Recently, the measurement of the pupil dilation response has been applied in many studies to assess listening effort. Meanwhile, the mechanisms underlying this response are still largely unknown. We present the results of a method that separates the influence of the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system on the pupil response during speech perception. This is achieved by changing the background illumination level. In darkness, the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system on the pupil response is minimal, whereas in light, there is an additional component from the parasympathetic nervous system. Nineteen hearing-impaired and 27 age-matched normal-hearing listeners performed speech reception threshold tests targeting a 50% correct performance level while pupil responses were recorded. The target speech was masked with a competing talker. The test was conducted twice, once in dark and once in a light condition. Need for Recovery and Checklist Individual Strength questionnaires were acquired as indices of daily-life fatigue. In dark, the peak pupil dilation (PPD) did not differ between the two groups, but in light, the normal-hearing group showed a larger PPD than the hearing-impaired group. Listeners with better hearing acuity showed larger differences in dilation between dark and light. These results indicate a larger effect of parasympathetic inhibition on the pupil dilation response of listeners with better hearing acuity, and a relatively high parasympathetic activity in those with worse hearing. Previously observed differences in PPD between normal and impaired listeners are probably not solely because of differences in listening effort.

Original languageEnglish
JournalTrends in Hearing
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2018


  • fatigue
  • hearing impairment
  • listening effort
  • parasympathetic nervous system
  • pupil dilation

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