The representation of level and loudness in the central auditory system for unilateral stimulation

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Loudness is the perceptual correlate of the physical intensity of a sound. However, loudness judgments depend on a variety of other variables and can vary considerably between individual listeners. While functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been extensively used to characterize the neural representation of physical sound intensity in the human auditory system, only few studies have also investigated brain activity in relation to individual loudness. The physiological correlate of loudness perception is not yet fully understood. The present study systematically explored the interrelation of sound pressure level, ear of entry, individual loudness judgments, and fMRI activation along different stages of the central auditory system and across hemispheres for a group of normal hearing listeners. 4-kHz-bandpass filtered noise stimuli were presented monaurally to each ear at levels from 37 to 97 dB SPL. One diotic condition and a silence condition were included as control conditions. The participants completed a categorical loudness scaling procedure with similar stimuli before auditory fMRI was performed. The relationship between brain activity, as inferred from blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) contrasts, and both sound level and loudness estimates were analyzed by means of functional activation maps and linear mixed effects models for various anatomically defined regions of interest in the ascending auditory pathway and in the cortex. Our findings are overall in line with the notion that fMRI activation in several regions within auditory cortex as well as in certain stages of the ascending auditory pathway might be more a direct linear reflection of perceived loudness rather than of sound pressure level. The results indicate distinct functional differences between midbrain and cortical areas as well as between specific regions within auditory cortex, suggesting a systematic hierarchy in terms of lateralization and the representation of level and loudness.1

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