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Spatial stream segregation by auditory cortical neurons.


In a complex auditory scene, a "cocktail party" for example, listeners can disentangle multiple competing sequences of sounds. A recent psychophysical study in our laboratory demonstrated a robust spatial component of stream segregation showing ∼8° acuity. Here, we recorded single- and multiple-neuron responses from the primary auditory cortex of anesthetized cats while presenting interleaved sound sequences that human listeners would experience as segregated streams. Sequences of broadband sounds alternated between pairs of locations. Neurons synchronized preferentially to sounds from one or the other location, thereby segregating competing sound sequences. Neurons favoring one source location or the other tended to aggregate within the cortex, suggestive of modular organization. The spatial acuity of stream segregation was as narrow as ∼10°, markedly sharper than the broad spatial tuning for single sources that is well known in the literature. Spatial sensitivity was sharpest among neurons having high characteristic frequencies. Neural stream segregation was predicted well by a parameter-free model that incorporated single-source spatial sensitivity and a measured forward-suppression term. We found that the forward suppression was not due to post discharge adaptation in the cortex and, therefore, must have arisen in the subcortical pathway or at the level of thalamocortical synapses. A linear-classifier analysis of single-neuron responses to rhythmic stimuli like those used in our psychophysical study yielded thresholds overlapping those of human listeners. Overall, the results indicate that the ascending auditory system does the work of segregating auditory streams, bringing them to discrete modules in the cortex for selection by top-down processes.

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