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Task-modulated “what” and “where” pathways in human auditory cortex

National Academy of Sciences
Publication Date
  • Biological Sciences
  • Linguistics
  • Physics


Human neuroimaging studies suggest that localization and identification of relevant auditory objects are accomplished via parallel parietal-to-lateral-prefrontal “where” and anterior-temporal-to-inferior-frontal “what” pathways, respectively. Using combined hemodynamic (functional MRI) and electromagnetic (magnetoencephalography) measurements, we investigated whether such dual pathways exist already in the human nonprimary auditory cortex, as suggested by animal models, and whether selective attention facilitates sound localization and identification by modulating these pathways in a feature-specific fashion. We found a double dissociation in response adaptation to sound pairs with phonetic vs. spatial sound changes, demonstrating that the human nonprimary auditory cortex indeed processes speech-sound identity and location in parallel anterior “what” (in anterolateral Heschl’s gyrus, anterior superior temporal gyrus, and posterior planum polare) and posterior “where” (in planum temporale and posterior superior temporal gyrus) pathways as early as ≈70–150 ms from stimulus onset. Our data further show that the “where” pathway is activated ≈30 ms earlier than the “what” pathway, possibly enabling the brain to use top-down spatial information in auditory object perception. Notably, selectively attending to phonetic content modulated response adaptation in the “what” pathway, whereas attending to sound location produced analogous effects in the “where” pathway. This finding suggests that selective-attention effects are feature-specific in the human nonprimary auditory cortex and that they arise from enhanced tuning of receptive fields of task-relevant neuronal populations.

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