Probing neural mechanisms underlying auditory stream segregation in humans by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS)

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One hypothesis concerning the neural underpinnings of auditory streaming states that frequency tuning of tonotopically organized neurons in primary auditory fields in combination with physiological forward suppression is necessary for the separation of representations of high-frequency A and low-frequency B tones. The extent of spatial overlap between the tonotopic activations of A and B tones is thought to underlie the perceptual organization of streaming sequences into one coherent or two separate streams. The present study attempts to interfere with these mechanisms by transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and to probe behavioral outcomes reflecting the perception of ABAB streaming sequences. We hypothesized that tDCS by modulating cortical excitability causes a change in the separateness of the representations of A and B tones, which leads to a change in the proportions of one-stream and two-stream percepts. To test this, 22 subjects were presented with ambiguous ABAB sequences of three different frequency separations (ΔF) and had to decide on their current percept after receiving sham, anodal, or cathodal tDCS over the left auditory cortex. We could confirm our hypothesis at the most ambiguous ΔF condition of 6 semitones. For anodal compared with sham and cathodal stimulation, we found a significant decrease in the proportion of two-stream perception and an increase in the proportion of one-stream perception. The results demonstrate the feasibility of using tDCS to probe mechanisms underlying auditory streaming through the use of various behavioral measures. Moreover, this approach allows one to probe the functions of auditory regions and their interactions with other processing stages.

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