Two phenomena of auditory cortex activity have recently attracted attention, namely that the primary field can show different types of learning-related changes of sound representation and that during learning even this early auditory cortex is under strong multimodal influence. Based on neuronal recordings in animal auditory cortex during instrumental tasks, in this review we put forward the hypothesis that these two phenomena serve to derive the task-specific meaning of sounds by associative learning. To understand the implications of this tenet, it is helpful to realize how a behavioral meaning is usually derived for novel environmental sounds. For this purpose, associations with other sensory, e.g. visual, information are mandatory to develop a connection between a sound and its behaviorally relevant cause and/or the context of sound occurrence. This makes it plausible that in instrumental tasks various non-auditory sensory and procedural contingencies of sound generation become co-represented by neuronal firing in auditory cortex. Information related to reward or to avoidance of discomfort during task learning, that is essentially non-auditory, is also co-represented. The reinforcement influence points to the dopaminergic internal reward system, the local role of which for memory consolidation in auditory cortex is well-established. Thus, during a trial of task performance, the neuronal responses to the sounds are embedded in a sequence of representations of such non-auditory information. The embedded auditory responses show task-related modulations of auditory responses falling into types that correspond to three basic logical classifications that may be performed with a perceptual item, i.e. from simple detection to discrimination, and categorization. This hierarchy of classifications determine the semantic "same-different" relationships among sounds. Different cognitive classifications appear to be a consequence of learning task and lead to a recruitment of different excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms and to distinct spatiotemporal metrics of map activation to represent a sound. The described non-auditory firing and modulations of auditory responses suggest that auditory cortex, by collecting all necessary information, functions as a "semantic processor" deducing the task-specific meaning of sounds by learning.
© 2010. Published by Elsevier B.V.