Neural processing of amplitude-modulated sounds

Physiol Rev. 2004 Apr;84(2):541-77. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00029.2003.


Amplitude modulation (AM) is a temporal feature of most natural acoustic signals. A long psychophysical tradition has shown that AM is important in a variety of perceptual tasks, over a range of time scales. Technical possibilities in stimulus synthesis have reinvigorated this field and brought the modulation dimension back into focus. We address the question whether specialized neural mechanisms exist to extract AM information, and thus whether consideration of the modulation domain is essential in understanding the neural architecture of the auditory system. The available evidence suggests that this is the case. Peripheral neural structures not only transmit envelope information in the form of neural activity synchronized to the modulation waveform but are often tuned so that they only respond over a limited range of modulation frequencies. Ascending the auditory neuraxis, AM tuning persists but increasingly takes the form of tuning in average firing rate, rather than synchronization, to modulation frequency. There is a decrease in the highest modulation frequencies that influence the neural response, either in average rate or synchronization, as one records at higher and higher levels along the neuraxis. In parallel, there is an increasing tolerance of modulation tuning for other stimulus parameters such as sound pressure level, modulation depth, and type of carrier. At several anatomical levels, consideration of modulation response properties assists the prediction of neural responses to complex natural stimuli. Finally, some evidence exists for a topographic ordering of neurons according to modulation tuning. The picture that emerges is that temporal modulations are a critical stimulus attribute that assists us in the detection, discrimination, identification, parsing, and localization of acoustic sources and that this wide-ranging role is reflected in dedicated physiological properties at different anatomical levels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Sound*