Background: Integrating information from the different senses markedly enhances the detection and identification of external stimuli. Compared with unimodal inputs, semantically and/or spatially congruent multisensory cues speed discrimination and improve reaction times. Discordant inputs have the opposite effect, reducing performance and slowing responses. These behavioural features of crossmodal processing appear to have parallels in the response properties of multisensory cells in the superior colliculi and cerebral cortex of non-human mammals. Although spatially concordant multisensory inputs can produce a dramatic, often multiplicative, increase in cellular activity, spatially disparate cues tend to induce a profound response depression.
Results: Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we investigated whether similar indices of crossmodal integration are detectable in human cerebral cortex, and for the synthesis of complex inputs relating to stimulus identity. Ten human subjects were exposed to varying epochs of semantically congruent and incongruent audio-visual speech and to each modality in isolation. Brain activations to matched and mismatched audio-visual inputs were contrasted with the combined response to both unimodal conditions. This strategy identified an area of heteromodal cortex in the left superior temporal sulcus that exhibited significant supra-additive response enhancement to matched audio-visual inputs and a corresponding sub-additive response to mismatched inputs.
Conclusions: The data provide fMRI evidence of crossmodal binding by convergence in the human heteromodal cortex. They further suggest that response enhancement and depression may be a general property of multisensory integration operating at different levels of the neuroaxis and irrespective of the purpose for which sensory inputs are combined.