Selective attention modulates human auditory brainstem responses: relative contributions of frequency and spatial cues

PLoS One. 2014 Jan 15;9(1):e85442. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085442. eCollection 2014.

Abstract

Selective attention is the mechanism that allows focusing one's attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli, for instance, on a single conversation in a noisy room. Attending to one sound source rather than another changes activity in the human auditory cortex, but it is unclear whether attention to different acoustic features, such as voice pitch and speaker location, modulates subcortical activity. Studies using a dichotic listening paradigm indicated that auditory brainstem processing may be modulated by the direction of attention. We investigated whether endogenous selective attention to one of two speech signals affects amplitude and phase locking in auditory brainstem responses when the signals were either discriminable by frequency content alone, or by frequency content and spatial location. Frequency-following responses to the speech sounds were significantly modulated in both conditions. The modulation was specific to the task-relevant frequency band. The effect was stronger when both frequency and spatial information were available. Patterns of response were variable between participants, and were correlated with psychophysical discriminability of the stimuli, suggesting that the modulation was biologically relevant. Our results demonstrate that auditory brainstem responses are susceptible to efferent modulation related to behavioral goals. Furthermore they suggest that mechanisms of selective attention actively shape activity at early subcortical processing stages according to task relevance and based on frequency and spatial cues.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention*
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory, Brain Stem*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male

Grant support

This work was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC, www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca) grant, #365345, to MS and a post-doctoral research grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada to AL. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.