Cortical representations sensitive to the number of perceived auditory objects emerge between 2 and 4 months of age: electrophysiological evidence.

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Journal of cognitive neuroscience





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Sound waves emitted by two or more simultaneous sources reach the ear as one complex waveform. Auditory scene analysis involves parsing a complex waveform into separate perceptual representations of the sound sources [Bregman, A. S. Auditory scene analysis: The perceptual organization of sounds. London: MIT Press, 1990]. Harmonicity provides an important cue for auditory scene analysis. Normally, harmonics at integer multiples of a fundamental frequency are perceived as one sound with a pitch corresponding to the fundamental frequency. However, when one harmonic in such a complex, pitch-evoking sound is sufficiently mistuned, that harmonic emerges from the complex tone and is perceived as a separate auditory object. Previous work has shown that the percept of two objects is indexed in both children and adults by the object-related negativity component of the ERP derived from EEG recordings [Alain, C., Arnott, S. T., & Picton, T. W. Bottom-up and top-down influences on auditory scene analysis: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 1072-1089, 2001]. Here we examine the emergence of object-related responses to an 8% harmonic mistuning in infants between 2 and 12 months of age. Two-month-old infants showed no significant object-related response. However, in 4- to 12-month-old infants, a significant frontally positive component was present, and by 8-12 months, a significant frontocentral object-related negativity was present, similar to that seen in older children and adults. This is in accordance with previous research demonstrating that infants younger than 4 months of age do not integrate harmonic information to perceive pitch when the fundamental is missing [He, C., Hotson, L., & Trainor, L. J. Maturation of cortical mismatch mismatch responses to occasional pitch change in early infancy: Effects of presentation rate and magnitude of change. Neuropsychologia, 47, 218-229, 2009]. The results indicate that the ability to use harmonic information to segregate simultaneous sounds emerges at the cortical level between 2 and 4 months of age.


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