Do you hear what I hear?


By Robert Mario

In both animals and humans, vocal signals used for communication contain a wide array of different sounds that are determined by the vibrational frequencies of vocal cords. For example, the pitch of someone’s voice, and how it changes as they are speaking, depends on a complex series of varying frequencies.

Knowing how the brain sorts out these different frequencies  — called frequency-modulated (FM) sweeps — is believed to be essential to understanding many hearing-related behaviors, like speech. Now, a pair of biologists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has identified how and where the brain processes this type of sound signal.

In their paper, the researchers pinpointed the brain region in rats where the task of sorting FM sweeps begins. “This type of processing is very important for understanding language and speech in humans,” said Guangying Wu, principal investigator of the study and a Broad Senior Research Fellow in brain circuitry at Caltech. “There are some people who have deficits in processing this kind of changing frequency; they experience difficulty in reading and learning language, and in perceiving the emotional states of speakers. Our research might help us understand these types of disorders, and may give some clues for future therapeutic designs or designs for prostheses like hearing implants.”

The researchers — including co-author Richard I. Kuo, a research technician, found that the processing of FM sweeps begins in the midbrain, an area located below the cerebral cortex near the center of the brain — which, Wu said, was actually a surprise. “Some people thought this type of sorting happened in a different region, for example in the auditory nerve or in the brain stem,” said Wu. “Others argued that it might happen in the cortex or thalamus.”

To acquire high-quality in-vivo measurements in the midbrain, which is located deep within the brain, the team designed a novel technique using two paired — or co-axial — electrodes. Previously, it had been very difficult for scientists to acquire recordings in hard-to-access brain regions such as the midbrain, thalamus and brain stem, said Wu, who believes the new method will be applicable to a wide range of deep-brain research studies. In addition to finding the site where FM sweep selectivity begins, the researchers discovered how auditory neurons in the midbrain respond to these frequency changes.

Combining physical measurements with computational models confirmed that the recorded neurons were able to selectively respond to FM sweeps based on their directions. For example, some neurons were more sensitive to upward sweeps, while others responded more to downward sweeps. “Our findings suggest that neural networks in the midbrain can convert from non-selective neurons that process all sounds to direction-selective neurons that help us give meanings to words based on how they are spoken. That’s a very fundamental process,” said Wu.

Dr. Robert Mario, PhD, BC-HIS, is the director of  Mario Hearing and Tinnitus Clinics, with locations in West Roxbury, Cambridge, Mansfield and Melrose. He can be reached at 781-979-0800 or visit their website, Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at