Objectives: Some children with learning problems (LP) experience speech-sound perception deficits that worsen in background noise. The first goal was to determine whether these impairments are associated with abnormal neurophysiologic representation of speech features in noise reflected at brain-stem and cortical levels. The second goal was to examine the perceptual and neurophysiological benefits provided to an impaired system by acoustic cue enhancements.

Methods: Behavioral speech perception measures (just noticeable difference scores), auditory brain-stem responses, frequency-following responses and cortical-evoked potentials (P1, N1, P1′, N1′) were studied in a group of LP children and compared to responses in normal children.

Results: We report abnormalities in the fundamental sensory representation of sound at brain-stem and cortical levels in the LP children when speech sounds were presented in noise, but not in quiet. Specifically, the neurophysiologic responses from these LP children displayed a different spectral pattern and lacked precision in the neural representation of key stimulus features. Cue enhancement benefited both behavioral and neurophysiological responses.

Conclusions: Overall, these findings contribute to our understanding of the preconscious biological processes underlying perception deficits and may assist in the design of effective intervention strategies.