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Sound perception and the importance of context

  • October 31,2016
  • Tim Newman
  • Neurology

During a football match, if we hear someone shouting at the top of their lungs, we might not be particularly perturbed. However, if we heard the exact same shouting while reading in a library, our reaction is likely to be significantly more intense. Scientists have long known that we respond to auditory stimuli in a context-specific way.

Our reaction to the sound of a car horn, for instance, elicits a different response if we hear it as we cross a busy street, compared with hearing it from the comfort of our sofa at home. Although we understand why context matters, the neural mechanisms behind it have proven more difficult to pick apart.

Researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center's Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine in New York designed a study to investigate the neurological changes regarding context-specific sound perception.

Senior investigator Robert Froemke, postdoctoral fellow Kishore Kuchibhotla, and their team set out to map how the same sensory inputs could be perceived and coded differently in the brain.

Understanding the sound in context
Although the project has been underway for around 5 years, the most recent findings still came as a surprise to the team.

Froemke has been interested in the plasticity of the brain and its ability to assign meaning to sounds for many years. Medical News Today recently took the opportunity to ask why this field of study was so interesting to him. He said:

"I think one of the most amazing things about the brain is that it changes, and it can learn all throughout life. This makes us all individual and different from one another, allowing us to learn from our mistakes and try to be better tomorrow than we were today."

He continued: "Words and music, the names of our romantic partners, these can be fairly simple sounds that have such powerful meaning to us, and in really interesting individual ways that drive strong emotional reactions and profoundly affect our behavior. The sound of a crying baby, for example, evokes a very different reaction if it's your baby versus if it's three rows behind you on a plane."

The way in which the human mind can change its response to certain stimuli is nothing short of amazing. As Froemke says, "I couldn't not study it."

Hung against this backdrop of deep fascination, Froemke and Kuchibhotla set out to understand these interactions by measuring nerve circuit activity in mice.

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