Attention-driven auditory cortex short-term plasticity helps segregate relevant sounds from noise

Jyrki Ahveninen*, Matti Hämäläinen, Iiro P. Jääskeläinen, Seppo P. Ahlfors, Samantha Huang, Fa Hsuan Lina, Tommi Raij, Mikko Sams, Christos E. Vasios, John W. Belliveau

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


How can we concentrate on relevant sounds in noisy environments? A "gain model" suggests that auditory attention simply amplifies relevant and suppresses irrelevant afferent inputs. However, it is unclear whether this suffices when attended and ignored features overlap to stimulate the same neuronal receptive fields. A "tuning model" suggests that, in addition to gain, attention modulates feature selectivity of auditory neurons. We recorded magnetoencephalography, EEG, and functional MRI (fMRI) while subjects attended to tones delivered to one ear and ignored opposite-ear inputs. The attended ear was switched every 30 s to quantify how quickly the effects evolve. To produce overlapping inputs, the tones were presented alone vs. during white-noise masking notch-filtered ±1/6 octaves around the tone center frequencies. Amplitude modulation (39 vs. 41 Hz in opposite ears) was applied for "frequency tagging" of attention effects on maskers. Noise masking reduced early (50-150 ms; N1) auditory responses to unattended tones. In support of the tuning model, selective attention canceled out this attenuating effect but did not modulate the gain of 50-150 ms activity to nonmasked tones or steady-state responses to the maskers themselves. These tuning effects originated at nonprimary auditory cortices, purportedly occupied by neurons that, without attention, have wider frequency tuning than ±1/6 octaves. The attentional tuning evolved rapidly, during the first few seconds after attention switching, and correlated with behavioral discrimination performance. In conclusion, a simple gainmodel alone cannot explain auditory selective attention. In nonprimary auditory cortices, attention-driven short-term plasticity retunes neurons to segregate relevant sounds from noise.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4182-4187
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number10
StatePublished - Mar 8 2011


  • Auditory scene analysis
  • Cocktail party phenomenon
  • Event-related potentials
  • Negative difference
  • Processing negativity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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