Detecting tones in complex auditory scenes

Anette S. Giani, Paolo Belardinelli, Erick Ortiz, Mario Kleiner, Uta Noppeney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Citations (Scopus)
217 Downloads (Pure)


In everyday life, our auditory system is bombarded with many signals in complex auditory scenes. Limited processing capacities allow only a fraction of these signals to enter perceptual awareness. This magnetoencephalography (MEG) study used informational masking to identify the neural mechanisms that enable auditory awareness. On each trial, participants indicated whether they detected a pair of sequentially presented tones (i.e., the target) that were embedded within a multi-tone background.

We analysed MEG activity for ‘hits’ and ‘misses’, separately for the first and second tones within a target pair. Comparing physically identical stimuli that were detected or missed provided insights into the neural processes underlying auditory awareness. While the first tone within a target elicited a stronger early P50m on hit trials, only the second tone evoked a negativity at 150 ms, which may index segregation of the tone pair from the multi-tone background. Notably, a later sustained deflection peaking around 300 and 500 ms (P300m) was the only component that was significantly amplified for both tones, when they were detected pointing towards its key role in perceptual awareness.

Additional Dynamic Causal Modelling analyses indicated that the negativity at 150 ms underlying auditory stream segregation is mediated predominantly via changes in intrinsic connectivity within auditory cortices. By contrast, the later P300m response as a signature of perceptual awareness relies on interactions between parietal and auditory cortices.

In conclusion, our results suggest that successful detection and hence auditory awareness of a two-tone pair within complex auditory scenes relies on recurrent processing between auditory and higher-order parietal cortices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)203-213
Number of pages11
Early online date2 Aug 2015
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2015


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