Neural Correlates of Early Sound Encoding and their Relationship to Speech-in-Noise Perception

Front Neurosci. 2017 Aug 25:11:479. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2017.00479. eCollection 2017.


Speech-in-noise (SIN) perception is a complex cognitive skill that affects social, vocational, and educational activities. Poor SIN ability particularly affects young and elderly populations, yet varies considerably even among healthy young adults with normal hearing. Although SIN skills are known to be influenced by top-down processes that can selectively enhance lower-level sound representations, the complementary role of feed-forward mechanisms and their relationship to musical training is poorly understood. Using a paradigm that minimizes the main top-down factors that have been implicated in SIN performance such as working memory, we aimed to better understand how robust encoding of periodicity in the auditory system (as measured by the frequency-following response) contributes to SIN perception. Using magnetoencephalograpy, we found that the strength of encoding at the fundamental frequency in the brainstem, thalamus, and cortex is correlated with SIN accuracy. The amplitude of the slower cortical P2 wave was previously also shown to be related to SIN accuracy and FFR strength; we use MEG source localization to show that the P2 wave originates in a temporal region anterior to that of the cortical FFR. We also confirm that the observed enhancements were related to the extent and timing of musicianship. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that basic feed-forward sound encoding affects SIN perception by providing better information to later processing stages, and that modifying this process may be one mechanism through which musical training might enhance the auditory networks that subserve both musical and language functions.

Keywords: auditory perception; electroencephalography; frequency-following response; inter-individual variability; magnetoencephalography; musical training; neuroplasticity; speech-in-noise.