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Barbara Shinn-Cunningham - Carnegie Mellon University. Pittsburgh, PA, US

Barbara Shinn-Cunningham

Professor | Carnegie Mellon University


Barbara Shinn-Cunningham's research explores such issues as how do we make sense of speech and other sounds.


Barbara Shinn-Cunningham is the director of the Carnegie Mellon Neuroscience Institute. Her research explores such issues as how do we make sense of speech and other sounds, how our brain networks allow us to focus attention and suppress uninteresting sound and whether we can develop new assistive communication devices and technologies that leverage knowledge from auditory neuroscience to aid listeners with hearing impairment or other communication disorders. Her work uses behavioral, neuroimaging and computational methods to understand auditory processing, from how sound is encoded in the inner ear to how cognitive networks modulate the representation of auditory information in the brain.

Areas of Expertise (11)

Non-Invasive Brain Monitoring

Mathematical & Statistical Methods


Cognitive Neuroscience

Characterization of Neural Circuits

Auditory Research

Behavioral Methods

Computational Neuroscience

Executive Control & Memory

Spatial Cognition & Attention

Sensation & Perception

Media Appearances (5)

Neuroscientists and Game Designers Play Well Together

Carnegie Mellon University  online


"Neuroscience is trending in the direction of using richer, more natural stimuli and less constrained behavior," Shinn-Cunningham said. "To get good data, past research often has been repetitive and dull, dividing tasks into brief 'trials' that constrain what happens. Acquiring information isn't fun or meaningful like it is in real life. One of the things game designers can teach us is how to make tasks fun, which can change how the brain functions."

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Pittsburgh’s ‘neighborly playground’ for neuroscience has new leadership

Pittwire - University of Pittsburgh  online


“We went through many exercises to try to figure out what people need and want out of the center and were able to generate feedback in a bottom up, grassroots way,” Shinn-Cunningham said. “The neuroscience programs at both universities have grown substantially over the years — but everyone still recognizes how much they gain from being part of the larger, more diverse community.”

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Otonomy Reports Positive Top-Line Results from Phase 2a Clinical Trial of OTO-413 in Patients with Hearing Loss

Benzinga  online


"The most common complaint of patients seeking treatment for hearing loss is difficulty hearing a conversation in a noisy setting," said Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, Ph.D., Director, Carnegie Mellon Neuroscience Institute and Cowan Professor of Auditory Neuroscience, Biomedical Engineering, Psychology, and Electrical & Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

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Otonomy Reports Positive Top-Line Results from Phase 1/2 Clinical Trial of OTO-413 in Patients with Hearing Loss

Investors Hub  online


“Difficulty hearing a conversation with noise in the background is a common complaint by patients presenting for hearing loss treatment and this is only expected to grow as the population ages and noise exposure in our society continues to increase,” said Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, Ph.D., Director, Carnegie Mellon Neuroscience Institute and Cowan Professor of Auditory Neuroscience, Biomedical Engineering, Psychology, and Electrical & Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

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When Your Eyes Move, So Do Your Eardrums

The Atlantic  online


Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, from Boston University, also studies the neuroscience of hearing, and she is more circumspect. “It is a very interesting and previously unknown phenomenon, which may turn out to be incredibly important,” she says, “But so far, there is no evidence it is. We just don’t yet know why it happens or what it means.”

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Understanding Speech in the Face of Competition – Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (Boston University) -2008



Industry Expertise (1)


Accomplishments (2)

Helmholtz-Rayleigh Interdisciplinary Silver Medal (professional)


David T. Blackstock Mentorship Award (professional)


Education (3)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Ph.D., Electrical & Computer Engineering

Massachusetts Institute of Technology: M.S., Electrical & Computer Engineering

Brown University: B.S., Electrical Engineering

Affiliations (3)

  • American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineers : Fellow
  • National Research Council : Associate Member
  • American Statistical Association : Fellow

Articles (5)

Induced alpha and beta electroencephalographic rhythms covary with single-trial speech intelligibility in competition

Scientific Reports

2023 Neurophysiological studies suggest that intrinsic brain oscillations influence sensory processing, especially of rhythmic stimuli like speech. Prior work suggests that brain rhythms may mediate perceptual grouping and selective attention to speech amidst competing sound, as well as more linguistic aspects of speech processing like predictive coding. However, we know of no prior studies that have directly tested, at the single-trial level, whether brain oscillations relate to speech-in-noise outcomes. Here, we combined electroencephalography while simultaneously measuring intelligibility of spoken sentences amidst two different interfering sounds: multi-talker babble or speech-shaped noise.

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Statistical learning across passive listening adjusts perceptual weights of speech input dimensions


2023 Statistical learning across passive exposure has been theoretically situated with unsupervised learning. However, when input statistics accumulate over established representations – like speech syllables, for example – there is the possibility that prediction derived from activation of rich, existing representations may support error-driven learning. Here, across five experiments, we present evidence for error-driven learning across passive speech listening. Young adults passively listened to a string of eight beer - pier speech tokens with distributional regularities following either a canonical American-English acoustic dimension correlation or a correlation reversed to create an accent. A sequence-final test stimulus assayed the perceptual weight – the effectiveness – of the secondary dimension in signaling category membership as a function of preceding sequence regularities.

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Diffuse Optical Tomography Spatial Prior for EEG Source Localization in Human Visual Cortex


2023 Electroencephalography (EEG) and diffuse optical tomography (DOT) are imaging methods which are widely used for neuroimaging. While the temporal resolution of EEG is high, the spatial resolution is typically limited. DOT, on the other hand, has high spatial resolution, but the temporal resolution is inherently limited by the slow hemodynamics it measures. In our previous work, we showed using computer simulations that when using the results of DOT reconstruction as the spatial prior for EEG source reconstruction, high spatio-temporal resolution could be achieved. In this work, we experimentally validate the algorithm by alternatingly flashing two visual stimuli at a speed that is faster than the temporal resolution of DOT.

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Evaluating feasibility of functional near-infrared spectroscopy in dolphins

Journal of Biomedical Optics

2023 Significance Using functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) could help to understand how echolocating animals perceive their environment and how they focus on specific auditory objects, such as fish, in noisy marine settings. Aim To test the feasibility of near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) in medium-sized marine mammals, such as dolphins, we modeled the light propagation with computational tools to determine the wavelengths, optode locations, and separation distances that maximize sensitivity to brain tissue.

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Modeling and interpreting the head-related transfer function to understand directional hearing in bottlenose dolphins

The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

2023 Toothed whales have evolved to communicate, forage, and navigate effectively underwater using sound. It is generally accepted that toothed whales receive sounds through their lower mandible and the associated fat body, which guide sound to the tympano-periotic complexes (TPCs) enclosing the cochleae. However, little is known about how the direction of an impinging sound wave affects acoustic interactions with these and other structures in the head to alter the signals driving the left and right TPCs. In this work, we constructed a three-dimensional head model using computed tomography (CT) images of a live bottlenose dolphin. Using a finite-element model to simulate sound-structure interactions, we computed how left and right TPC signals vary with sound direction for multiple frequencies to generate dolphin head-related transfer functions (HRTFs).

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