Auditory Gap-in-Noise Detection Behavior in Ferrets and Humans


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Abstract

The precise encoding of temporal features of auditory stimuli by the mammalian auditory system is critical to the perception of biologically important sounds, including vocalizations, speech, and music. In this study, auditory gap-detection behavior was evaluated in adult pigmented ferrets (Mustelid putorius furo) using bandpassed stimuli designed to widely sample the ferret’s behavioral and physiological audiogram. Animals were tested under positive operant conditioning, with psychometric functions constructed in response to gap-in-noise lengths ranging from 3 to 270 ms. Using a modified version of this gap-detection task, with the same stimulus frequency parameters, we also tested a cohort of normal-hearing human subjects. Gap-detection thresholds were computed from psychometric curves transformed according to signal detection theory, revealing that for both ferrets and humans, detection sensitivity was worse for silent gaps embedded within low-frequency noise compared with high-frequency or broadband stimuli. Additional psychometric function analysis of ferret behavior indicated effects of stimulus spectral content on aspects of behavioral performance related to decision-making processes, with animals displaying improved sensitivity for broadband gap-in-noise detection. Reaction times derived from unconditioned head-orienting data and the time from stimulus onset to reward spout activation varied with the stimulus frequency content and gap length, as well as the approach-to-target choice and reward location. The present study represents a comprehensive evaluation of gap-detection behavior in ferrets, while similarities in performance with our human subjects confirm the use of the ferret as an appropriate model of temporal processing.

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