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Hierarchical effects of task engagement on amplitude modulation encoding in auditory cortex.


We recorded from middle lateral belt (ML) and primary (A1) auditory cortical neurons while animals discriminated amplitude-modulated (AM) sounds and also while they sat passively. Engagement in AM discrimination improved ML and A1 neurons' ability to discriminate AM with both firing rate and phase-locking; however, task engagement affected neural AM discrimination differently in the two fields. The results suggest that these two areas utilize different AM coding schemes: a "single mode" in A1 that relies on increased activity for AM relative to unmodulated sounds and a "dual-polar mode" in ML that uses both increases and decreases in neural activity to encode modulation. In the dual-polar ML code, nonsynchronized responses might play a special role. The results are consistent with findings in the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices during discrimination of vibrotactile modulation frequency, implicating a common scheme in the hierarchical processing of temporal information among different modalities. The time course of activity differences between behaving and passive conditions was also distinct in A1 and ML and may have implications for auditory attention. At modulation depths ≥ 16% (approximately behavioral threshold), A1 neurons' improvement in distinguishing AM from unmodulated noise is relatively constant or improves slightly with increasing modulation depth. In ML, improvement during engagement is most pronounced near threshold and disappears at highly suprathreshold depths. This ML effect is evident later in the stimulus, and mainly in nonsynchronized responses. This suggests that attention-related increases in activity are stronger or longer-lasting for more difficult stimuli in ML.

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