Independent or integrated processing of interaural time and level differences in human auditory cortex?

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Sound localization in the horizontal plane is mainly determined by interaural time differences (ITD) and interaural level differences (ILD). Both cues result in an estimate of sound source location and in many real-life situations these two cues are roughly congruent. When stimulating listeners with headphones it is possible to counterbalance the two cues, so called ITD/ILD trading. This phenomenon speaks for integrated ITD/ILD processing at the behavioral level. However, it is unclear at what stages of the auditory processing stream ITD and ILD cues are integrated to provide a unified percept of sound lateralization.

Therefore, we set out to test with human electroencephalography for integrated versus independent ITD/ILD processing at the level of preattentive cortical processing by measuring the mismatch negativity (MMN) to changes in sound lateralization. We presented a series of diotic standards (perceived at a midline position) that were interrupted by deviants that entailed either a change in a) ITD only, b) ILD only, c) congruent ITD and ILD, or d) counterbalanced ITD/ILD (ITD/ILD trading). The sound stimuli were either i) pure tones with a frequency of 500 Hz, or ii) amplitude modulated tones with a carrier frequency of 4000 Hz and a modulation frequency of 125 Hz.

We observed significant MMN for the ITD/ILD traded deviants in case of the 500 Hz pure tones, and for the 4000 Hz amplitude-modulated tone. This speaks for independent processing of ITD and ILD at the level of the MMN within auditory cortex. However, the combined ITD/ILD cues elicited smaller MMN than the sum of the MMN induced in response to ITD and ILD cues presented in isolation for 500 Hz, but not 4000 Hz, suggesting independent processing for the higher frequency only. Thus, the two markers for independent processing – additivity and cue-conflict – resulted in contradicting conclusions with a dissociation between the lower (500 Hz) and higher frequency (4000 Hz) bands.

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