Objective: The purpose of this study was to evaluate central auditory system maturation based on detailed data from multi-electrode recordings of long-latency auditory evoked potentials (AEPs).
Methods: AEPs were measured at 30 scalp-electrode locations from 118 subjects between 5 and 20 years of age. Analyses focused on age-related latency and amplitude changes in the P1, N1b, P2, and N2 peaks of the AEPs generated by a brief train of clicks presented to the left ear.
Results: Substantial and unexpected changes that extend well into adolescence were found for both the amplitude and latency of the AEP components. While the maturational changes in latency followed a pattern of gradual change, amplitude changes tended to be more abrupt and step-like. Age-related latency decreases were largest for the P1 and N1b peaks. In contrast, P2 latency did not change significantly and the N2 peak increased in latency as a function of age. Abrupt changes in P1, P1-N1b, and N2 peak amplitude (also RMS amplitude) were observed around age 10 at the lateral electrode locations C3 and C4, but not at the midline electrodes Cz and Fz. These changes in amplitude coincided with a sharp increase and plateau in AEP peak and RMS amplitude variability from 9 to 11 years of age.
Conclusions: These analyses demonstrated that the observed pattern of AEP maturation depends on the scalp location at which the responses are recorded. The distinct maturational time courses observed for individual AEP peaks support a model of AEP generation in which activity originates from two or more at least partly independent central nervous system pathways. A striking parallel was observed between previously reported maturational changes in auditory cortex synaptic density and, in particular, the age-related changes in P1 amplitude. The results indicate that some areas of the brain activated by sound stimulation have a maturational time course that extends into adolescence. Maturation of certain auditory processing skills such as speech recognition in noise also has a prolonged time course. This raises the possibility that the emergence of adult-like auditory processing skills may be governed by the same maturing neural processes that affect AEP latency and amplitude.