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Sound Separated into Sound Frequencies

It has long remained a mystery how even in loud environments - like a factory with rattling machines, or a party with music and a cacophony of people// talking - we can hear the voice of our conversational partner. This showed that the brain chooses what to hear.

Neurophysiologists still do not fully understand how we do this. But they do know that the cochlea is mapped out in certain areas of the brain, and like the retina, this mapping is point-for-point. Thus, in interpreting our environment it is important for the brain to separate sound into its constituent frequencies. That means that particular sound frequencies best activate certain groups of neurons in the auditory cortex. Scientists have used electrophysiological and anatomical studies to determine which areas of the brain are responsible for certain frequencies - but mainly in animals, like those of the macaque monkey.

These kinds of studies are only rarely conducted on humans; therefore, much of our knowledge comes from the work with animals. Neurologists primarily use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see "through" the human brain - including the auditory cortex. Looking at hearing, they saw a pattern of activity comparable to that of monkeys. "But the comparisons were indirect," says Christopher Petkov, who led research at the Max Planck Institute. Until now, there had not been any fMRI conducted on the auditory cortex of monkeys, for comparison. "We have now closed that gap," he explains. Scientists have compared the results that various methods produce on the auditory cortex of macaques and these can now be linked to the human imaging using the same technique. They can also now investigate more thoroughly to what extent a monkey’s neuronal auditory centres resemble - and differ from - humans’. This will help advance research into how the primate brain separates sound mixtures in our typically noisy listening environment.

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