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Perceptual gating of a brainstem reflex facilitates speech understanding in humans listeners

By Heivet Hernandez-Perez, Jason Andrew Daniel Mikiel-Hunter, David McAlpine, Sumitrajit Dhar, Sriram Boothalingam, Jessica J.M. Monaghan, Catherine McMahon

Posted 01 Jun 2020
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.05.31.115444

Navigating "cocktail party" situations by enhancing foreground sounds over irrelevant background information is typically considered from a cortico-centric perspective. However, subcortical circuits, such as the medial olivocochlear (MOC) reflex that modulates inner ear activity itself, have ample opportunity to extract salient features from the auditory scene prior to any cortical processing. To understand the contribution of auditory subcortical nuclei and the cochlea, physiological recordings were made along the auditory pathway while listeners differentiated non(sense)-words and words. Both naturally-spoken and intrinsically-noisy, vocoded speech -filtering that mimics processing by a cochlear implant-significantly activated the MOC reflex, whereas listening to speech-in-background noise revealed instead engagement of midbrain and cortical resources. An auditory periphery model reproduced these speech degradation-specific effects, providing a rationale for goal-directed gating of the MOC reflex to enhance representation of speech features in the auditory nerve. Our data reveals the co-existence of two strategies in the auditory system that may facilitate speech understanding in situations where the speech signal is either intrinsically degraded or masked by extrinsic auditory information.

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