The plastic ear and perceptual relearning in auditory spatial perception

Front Neurosci. 2014 Aug 6;8:237. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00237. eCollection 2014.


The auditory system of adult listeners has been shown to accommodate to altered spectral cues to sound location which presumably provides the basis for recalibration to changes in the shape of the ear over a life time. Here we review the role of auditory and non-auditory inputs to the perception of sound location and consider a range of recent experiments looking at the role of non-auditory inputs in the process of accommodation to these altered spectral cues. A number of studies have used small ear molds to modify the spectral cues that result in significant degradation in localization performance. Following chronic exposure (10-60 days) performance recovers to some extent and recent work has demonstrated that this occurs for both audio-visual and audio-only regions of space. This begs the questions as to the teacher signal for this remarkable functional plasticity in the adult nervous system. Following a brief review of influence of the motor state in auditory localization, we consider the potential role of auditory-motor learning in the perceptual recalibration of the spectral cues. Several recent studies have considered how multi-modal and sensory-motor feedback might influence accommodation to altered spectral cues produced by ear molds or through virtual auditory space stimulation using non-individualized spectral cues. The work with ear molds demonstrates that a relatively short period of training involving audio-motor feedback (5-10 days) significantly improved both the rate and extent of accommodation to altered spectral cues. This has significant implications not only for the mechanisms by which this complex sensory information is encoded to provide spatial cues but also for adaptive training to altered auditory inputs. The review concludes by considering the implications for rehabilitative training with hearing aids and cochlear prosthesis.

Keywords: adult functional plasticity; auditory accommodation; auditory spatial perception; auditory-motor integration; spectral cues.

Publication types

  • Review