Statistical regularities in natural sounds facilitate the perceptual segregation of auditory sources, or streams. Repetition is one cue that drives stream segregation in humans, but the neural basis of this perceptual phenomenon remains unknown. We demonstrated a similar perceptual ability in animals by training ferrets of both sexes to detect a stream of repeating noise samples (foreground) embedded in a stream of random samples (background). During passive listening, we recorded neural activity in primary auditory cortex (A1) and secondary auditory cortex (posterior ectosylvian gyrus, PEG). We used two context-dependent encoding models to test for evidence of streaming of the repeating stimulus. The first was based on average evoked activity per noise sample and the second on the spectro-temporal receptive field. Both approaches tested whether differences in neural responses to repeating versus random stimuli were better modeled by scaling the response to both streams equally (global gain) or by separately scaling the response to the foreground versus background stream (stream-specific gain). Consistent with previous observations of adaptation, we found an overall reduction in global gain when the stimulus began to repeat. However, when we measured stream-specific changes in gain, responses to the foreground were enhanced relative to the background. This enhancement was stronger in PEG than A1. In A1, enhancement was strongest in units with low sparseness (i.e., broad sensory tuning) and with tuning selective for the repeated sample. Enhancement of responses to the foreground relative to the background provides evidence for stream segregation that emerges in A1 and is refined in PEG.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT To interact with the world successfully, the brain must parse behaviorally important information from a complex sensory environment. Complex mixtures of sounds often arrive at the ears simultaneously or in close succession, yet they are effortlessly segregated into distinct perceptual sources. This process breaks down in hearing-impaired individuals and speech recognition devices. By identifying the underlying neural mechanisms that facilitate perceptual segregation, we can develop strategies for ameliorating hearing loss and improving speech recognition technology in the presence of background noise. Here, we present evidence to support a hierarchical process, present in primary auditory cortex and refined in secondary auditory cortex, in which sound repetition facilitates segregation.
Keywords: auditory; behavior; cortex; repetition; sound; streaming.
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