Hemodynamic Responses Link Individual Differences in Informational Masking to the Vicinity of Superior Temporal Gyrus

Front Neurosci. 2021 Jul 22:15:675326. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2021.675326. eCollection 2021.


Suppressing unwanted background sound is crucial for aural communication. A particularly disruptive type of background sound, informational masking (IM), often interferes in social settings. However, IM mechanisms are incompletely understood. At present, IM is identified operationally: when a target should be audible, based on suprathreshold target/masker energy ratios, yet cannot be heard because target-like background sound interferes. We here confirm that speech identification thresholds differ dramatically between low- vs. high-IM background sound. However, speech detection thresholds are comparable across the two conditions. Moreover, functional near infrared spectroscopy recordings show that task-evoked blood oxygenation changes near the superior temporal gyrus (STG) covary with behavioral speech detection performance for high-IM but not low-IM background sound, suggesting that the STG is part of an IM-dependent network. Moreover, listeners who are more vulnerable to IM show increased hemodynamic recruitment near STG, an effect that cannot be explained based on differences in task difficulty across low- vs. high-IM. In contrast, task-evoked responses near another auditory region of cortex, the caudal inferior frontal sulcus (cIFS), do not predict behavioral sensitivity, suggesting that the cIFS belongs to an IM-independent network. Results are consistent with the idea that cortical gating shapes individual vulnerability to IM.

Keywords: auditory perception; cochlear implant; functional near infrared spectrocopy; hearing; informational masking; masking.