Processing of natural sounds in human auditory cortex: tonotopy, spectral tuning, and relation to voice sensitivity
Auditory cortical processing of complex meaningful sounds entails the transformation of sensory (tonotopic) representations of incoming acoustic waveforms into higher-level sound representations (e.g., their category). However, the precise neural mechanisms enabling such transformations remain largely unknown. In the present study, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and natural sounds stimulation to examine these two levels of sound representation (and their relation) in the human auditory cortex. In a first experiment, we derive cortical maps of frequency preference (tonotopy) and selectivity (tuning width) by mathematical modeling of fMRI responses to natural sounds. The tuning width maps highlight a region of narrow tuning that follows the main axis of Heschl's gyrus and is flanked by regions of broader tuning. The narrowly tuned portion on Heschl's gyrus contains two mirror-symmetric frequency gradients, presumably defining two distinct primary auditory areas. In addition, our analysis indicates that spectral preference and selectivity (and their topographical organization) extend well beyond the primary regions and also cover higher-order and category-selective auditory regions. In particular, regions with preferential responses to human voice and speech occupy the low-frequency portions of the tonotopic map. We confirm this observation in a second experiment, where we find that speech/voice selective regions exhibit a response bias toward the low frequencies characteristic of human voice and speech, even when responding to simple tones. We propose that this frequency bias reflects the selective amplification of relevant and category-characteristic spectral bands, a useful processing step for transforming a sensory (tonotopic) sound image into higher level neural representations.