24th Oct 2017

As humans, we have an amazing ability to pick out specific voices in conversations with a high accuracy. For example, when we are in a busy coffee shop where the loud chatter of customers fills the air, we are still able to focus on a single voice and attend to it.

It is well established that our capability in selective attention to competing acoustic signals does not lack. However, for researchers to study the contribution of the brainstem to attention is a difficult task due to the tiny amplitude of the brainstem response.

To make an accurate measurement requires a large number of repetitions of the same short sound stimuli. However, having a high number of repetitions may lead to a lack of attention and neural adaption to the stimuli.

Researchers in Imperial College London were able to get round this intrinsic problem by developing a mathematical method to measure the auditory brainstem response to running speech.

Following their new method, they found a larger response from the human auditory brainstem to continuous speech when attending rather than ignoring a speech signal.

They also found a larger phase locking of the neural activity to the pitch structure of speech for attended speech.

This shows that pitch of the speaker’s voice is an important cue for the brainstem as we try to filter our background noise from the target voice.

For more information please visit https://elifesciences.org/articles/27203

Forte, A., Etard, O., & Reichenbach, T. (2017). The human auditory brainstem response to running speech reveals a subcortical mechanism for selective attention. Elife, 6. http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/elife.27203

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