Processing complex sounds passing through the rostral brainstem: The new early filter model

Marsh, John Everett orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-9494-1287 and Campbell, T.A (2016) Processing complex sounds passing through the rostral brainstem: The new early filter model. Frontiers in Neuroscience . ISSN 1662-4548

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The rostral brainstem receives both "bottom-up" input from the ascending auditory system and "top-down" descending corticofugal connections. Speech information passing through the inferior colliculus of elderly listeners reflects the periodicity envelope of a speech syllable. This information arguably also reflects a composite of temporal-fine-structure (TFS) information from the higher frequency vowel harmonics of that repeated syllable. The amplitude of those higher frequency harmonics, bearing even higher frequency TFS information, correlates positively with the word recognition ability of elderly listeners under reverberatory conditions. Also relevant is that working memory capacity (WMC), which is subject to age-related decline, constrains the processing of sounds at the level of the brainstem. Turning to the effects of a visually presented sensory or memory load on auditory processes, there is a load-dependent reduction of that processing, as manifest in the auditory brainstem responses (ABR) evoked by to-be-ignored clicks. Wave V decreases in amplitude with increases in the visually presented memory load. A visually presented sensory load also produces a load-dependent reduction of a slightly different sort: The sensory load of visually presented information limits the disruptive effects of background sound upon working memory performance. A new early filter model is thus advanced whereby systems within the frontal lobe (affected by sensory or memory load) cholinergically influence top-down corticofugal connections. Those corticofugal connections constrain the processing of complex sounds such as speech at the level of the brainstem. Selective attention thereby limits the distracting effects of background sound entering the higher auditory system via the inferior colliculus. Processing TFS in the brainstem relates to perception of speech under adverse conditions. Attentional selectivity is crucial when the signal heard is degraded or masked: e.g., speech in noise, speech in reverberatory environments. The assumptions of a new early filter model are consistent with these findings: A subcortical early filter, with a predictive selectivity based on acoustical (linguistic) context and foreknowledge, is under cholinergic top-down control. A prefrontal capacity limitation constrains this top-down control as is guided by the cholinergic processing of contextual information in working memory.

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