Suppression of irrelevant sounds during auditory working memory

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Auditory working memory (WM) processing in everyday acoustic environments depends on our ability to maintain relevant information online in our minds, and to suppress interference caused by competing incoming stimuli. A challenge in communication settings is that the relevant content and irrelevant inputs may emanate from a common source, such as a talkative conversationalist. An open question is how the WM system deals with such interference. Will the distracters become inadvertently filtered before processing for meaning because the primary WM operations deplete all available processing resources? Or are they suppressed post perceptually, through an active control process? We tested these alternative hypotheses by measuring magnetoencephalography (MEG), EEG, and functional MRI (fMRI) during a phonetic auditory continuous performance task. Contextual WM maintenance load was manipulated by adjusting the number of “filler” letter sounds in-between cue and target letter sounds. Trial-to-trial variability of pre- and post-stimulus activations in fMRI-informed cortical MEG/EEG estimates was analyzed within and across 14 subjects using generalized linear mixed effect (GLME) models. High contextual WM maintenance load suppressed left auditory cortex (AC) activations around 250–300 ms after the onset of irrelevant phonetic sounds. This effect coincided with increased 10–14 Hz alpha-range oscillatory functional connectivity between the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and left AC. Suppression of AC responses to irrelevant sounds during active maintenance of the task context also correlated with increased pre-stimulus 7–15 Hz alpha power. Our results suggest that under high auditory WM load, irrelevant sounds are suppressed through a “late” active suppression mechanism, which prevents short-term consolidation of irrelevant information without affecting the initial screening of potentially meaningful stimuli. The results also suggest that AC alpha oscillations play an inhibitory role during auditory WM processing.

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