Individual Differences in Human Auditory Processing: Insights From Single-Trial Auditory Midbrain Activity in an Animal Model

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Abstract

Auditory-evoked potentials are classically defined as the summations of synchronous firing along the auditory neuraxis. Converging evidence supports a model whereby timing jitter in neural coding compromises listening and causes variable scalp-recorded potentials. Yet the intrinsic noise of human scalp recordings precludes a full understanding of the biological origins of individual differences in listening skills. To delineate the mechanisms contributing to these phenomena, in vivo extracellular activity was recorded from inferior colliculus in guinea pigs to speech in quiet and noise. Here we show that trial-by-trial timing jitter is a mechanism contributing to auditory response variability. Identical variability patterns were observed in scalp recordings in human children, implicating jittered timing as a factor underlying reduced coding of dynamic speech features and speech in noise. Moreover, intertrial variability in human listeners is tied to language development. Together, these findings suggest that variable timing in inferior colliculus blurs the neural coding of speech in noise, and propose a consequence of this timing jitter for human behavior. These results hint both at the mechanisms underlying speech processing in general, and at what may go awry in individuals with listening difficulties.

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