The human auditory system presents a remarkable ability to detect rapid changes in fast, continuous acoustic sequences, as best illustrated in speech and music. However, the neural processing of rapid auditory contrast remains largely unclear, probably due to the lack of methods to objectively dissociate the response components specifically related to the contrast from the other components in response to the sequence of fast continuous sounds. To overcome this issue, we tested a novel use of the frequency-tagging approach allowing contrast-specific neural responses to be tracked based on their expected frequencies. The EEG was recorded while participants listened to 40-s sequences of sounds presented at 8Hz. A tone or interaural time contrast was embedded every fifth sound (AAAAB), such that a response observed in the EEG at exactly 8 Hz/5 (1.6 Hz) or harmonics should be the signature of contrast processing by neural populations. Contrast-related responses were successfully identified, even in the case of very fine contrasts. Moreover, analysis of the time course of the responses revealed a stable amplitude over repetitions of the AAAAB patterns in the sequence, except for the response to perceptually salient contrasts that showed a buildup and decay across repetitions of the sounds. Overall, this new combination of frequency-tagging with an oddball design provides a valuable complement to the classic, transient, evoked potentials approach, especially in the context of rapid auditory information. Specifically, we provide objective evidence on the neural processing of contrast embedded in fast, continuous sound sequences.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Recent theories suggest that the basis of neurodevelopmental auditory disorders such as dyslexia might be an impaired processing of fast auditory changes, highlighting how the encoding of rapid acoustic information is critical for auditory communication. Here, we present a novel electrophysiological approach to capture in humans neural markers of contrasts in fast continuous tone sequences. Contrast-specific responses were successfully identified, even for very fine contrasts, providing direct insight on the encoding of rapid auditory information.
Keywords: auditory contrast; electroencephalographic; frequency tagging; sensory discrimination.
Copyright © 2017 the American Physiological Society.