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The Neurophysiology of Auditory Perception: From Single Units to Evoked Potentials

Eggermont J.J.a · Ponton C.W.b
aDepartments of Physiology and Biophysics, and Psychology, University of Calgary, Canada; bNeuroscan Laboratories, El Paso, Tex., USA Audiol Neurootol 2002;7:71–99 (DOI:10.1159/000057656)

Abstract

Evoked electric potential and magnetic field studies have the immense benefit that they can be conducted in awake, behaving humans and can be directly correlated with aspects of perception. As such, they are powerful objective indicators of perceptual properties. However, given a set of evoked potential and/or evoked field waveforms and their source locations, obtained for an exhaustive set of stimuli and stimulus contrasts, is it possible to determine blindly, i.e. predict, what the stimuli or stimulus contrasts were? If this can be done with some success, then a useful amount of information resides in scalp-recorded activity for, e.g., the study of auditory speech processing. In this review, we compare neural representations based on single-unit and evoked response activity for vowels and consonant-vowel phonemes with distinctions in formant glides and voice onset time. We conclude that temporal aspects of evoked responses can track some of the dominant response features present in single-unit activity. However, N1 morphology does not reliably predict phonetic identification of stimuli varying in voice onset time, and the reported appearance of a double-peak onset response in aggregate recordings from the auditory cortex does not indicate a cortical correlate of the perception of voicelessness. This suggests that temporal aspects of single-unit population activity are likely not inclusive enough for representation of categorical perception boundaries. In contrast to population activity based on single-unit recording, the ability to accurately localize the sources of scalp-evoked activity is one of the bottlenecks in obtaining an accessible neurophysiological substrate of perception. Attaining this is one of the requisites to arrive at the prospect of blind determination of stimuli on the basis of evoked responses. At the current sophistication level of recording and analysis, evoked responses remain in the realm of extremely sensitive objective indicators of stimulus change or stimulus differences. As such, they are signs of perceptual activity, but not comprehensive representations thereof.

 

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