Distinguishing between regular and irregular heartbeats, conversing with speakers of different accents, and tuning a guitar-all rely on some form of auditory learning. What drives these experience-dependent changes? A growing body of evidence suggests an important role for non-sensory influences, including reward, task engagement, and social or linguistic context. This review is a collection of contributions that highlight how these non-sensory factors shape auditory plasticity and learning at the molecular, physiological, and behavioral level. We begin by presenting evidence that reward signals from the dopaminergic midbrain act on cortico-subcortical networks to shape sound-evoked responses of auditory cortical neurons, facilitate auditory category learning, and modulate the long-term storage of new words and their meanings. We then discuss the role of task engagement in auditory perceptual learning and suggest that plasticity in top-down cortical networks mediates learning-related improvements in auditory cortical and perceptual sensitivity. Finally, we present data that illustrates how social experience impacts sound-evoked activity in the auditory midbrain and forebrain and how the linguistic environment rapidly shapes speech perception. These findings, which are derived from both human and animal models, suggest that non-sensory influences are important regulators of auditory learning and plasticity and are often implemented by shared neural substrates. Application of these principles could improve clinical training strategies and inform the development of treatments that enhance auditory learning in individuals with communication disorders.
Keywords: Experience; Language; Reward; Social context; Task engagement; Top-down.
© 2022. The Author(s) under exclusive licence to Association for Research in Otolaryngology.