Making Sense of Listening: The IMAP Test Battery
The ability to hear is only the first step towards making sense of the range of information contained in an auditory signal. Of equal importance are the abilities to extract and use the information encoded in the auditory signal. We refer to these as listening skills (or auditory processing AP). Deficits in these skills are associated with delayed language and literacy development, though the nature of the relevant deficits and their causal connection with these delays is hotly debated.
When a child is referred to a health professional with normal hearing and unexplained difficulties in listening, or associated delays in language or literacy development, they should ideally be assessed with a combination of psychoacoustic (AP) tests, suitable for children and for use in a clinic, together with cognitive tests to measure attention, working memory, IQ, and language skills. Such a detailed examination needs to be relatively short and within the technical capability of any suitably qualified professional. Current tests for the presence of AP deficits tend to be poorly constructed and inadequately validated within the normal population. They have little or no reference to the presenting symptoms of the child, and typically include a linguistic component. Poor performance may thus reflect problems with language rather than with AP. To assist in the assessment of children with listening difficulties, pediatric audiologists need a single, standardized child-appropriate test battery based on the use of language-free stimuli.
We present the IMAP test battery which was developed at the MRC Institute of Hearing Research to supplement tests currently used to investigate cases of suspected AP deficits. IMAP assesses a range of relevant auditory and cognitive skills and takes about one hour to complete. It has been standardized in 1500 normally-hearing children from across the UK, aged 6-11 years. Since its development, it has been successfully used in a number of large scale studies both in the UK and the USA. IMAP provides measures for separating out sensory from cognitive contributions to hearing. It further limits confounds due to procedural effects by presenting tests in a child-friendly game-format. Stimulus-generation, management of test protocols and control of test presentation is mediated by the IHR-STAR software platform. This provides a standardized methodology for a range of applications and ensures replicable procedures across testers. IHR-STAR provides a flexible, user-programmable environment that currently has additional applications for hearing screening, mapping cochlear implant electrodes, and academic research or teaching.