Using spatial illusion to learn how the brain processes sound

EDITORS: A color photograph of U-M scientist Li Xu in the U-M experimental sound chamber is available on request.

ANN ARBOR---Next time your pager starts beeping in a crowded room, try this little experiment in auditory perception. After a few beeps, notice how everyone starts looking around in all directions trying to hear where the noise is coming from. Try the same experiment in a room full of cats and you'll see the feline version of aural confusion.

People and cats have no problem localizing natural sounds like a snapping twig or rustling leaves, which include a broad spectrum of sound frequencies, according to John C. Middlebrooks, Ph.D., an associate professor of otolaryngology in the University of Michigan Medical School. But our auditory system lacks the ability to pinpoint the location of narrow-band sounds with just a few frequencies, like a beeping pager.

Middlebrooks and his colleagues at the U-M Kresge Hearing Research Institute are taking advantage of this inability to localize narrow-band frequencies in research designed to learn how the brain processes and perceives sound.

"We know that sound is recorded in the firing pattern of neurons in the auditory cortex---the part of the brain that processes electrical signals generated in the inner ear," Middlebrooks said. "We're trying to break the code---to understand the rules the brain uses to translate this neural activity into what we hear as sound."

In a paper published in the June 17 issue of Nature, U-M scientists Middlebrooks and U-M post-doctoral researchers Li Xu, Ph.D., and Shigeto Furukawa, Ph.D., describe how localization errors made by nerve cells in the brains of cats exposed to filtered sounds are consistent with errors made by humans in previous experiments.

In earlier experiments, human volunteers stood in a soundproof room surrounded by 14 loudspeakers and listened to a random series of broad-band and narrow-band tones, which sound something like quiet

Contact: Sally Pobojewski
University of Michigan

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