Studies in all sensory modalities have demonstrated amplification of early brain responses to attended signals, but less is known about the processes by which listeners selectively ignore stimuli. Here we use MEG and a new paradigm to dissociate the effects of selectively attending, and ignoring in time. Two different tasks were performed successively on the same acoustic stimuli: triplets of tones (A, B, C) with noise-bursts interspersed between the triplets. In the COMPARE task subjects were instructed to respond when tones A and C were of same frequency. In the PASSIVE task they were instructed to respond as fast as possible to noise-bursts. COMPARE requires attending to A and C and actively ignoring tone B, but PASSIVE involves neither attending to nor ignoring the tones. The data were analyzed separately for frontal and auditory-cortical channels to independently address attentional effects on low-level sensory versus putative control processing. We observe the earliest attend/ignore effects as early as 100 ms post-stimulus onset in auditory cortex. These appear to be generated by modulation of exogenous (stimulus-driven) sensory evoked activity. Specifically related to ignoring, we demonstrate that active-ignoring-induced input inhibition involves early selection. We identified a sequence of early (<200 ms post-onset) auditory cortical effects, comprised of onset response attenuation and the emergence of an inhibitory response, and provide new, direct evidence that listeners actively ignoring a sound can reduce their stimulus related activity in auditory cortex by 100 ms after onset when this is required to execute specific behavioral objectives.
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