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Relevance of Spectral Cues for Auditory Spatial Processing in the Occipital Cortex of the Blind

By Patrice Voss, Franco Lepore, Frédéric Gougoux and Robert J. Zatorre


We have previously shown that some blind individuals can localize sounds more accurately than their sighted counterparts when one ear is obstructed, and that this ability is strongly associated with occipital cortex activity. Given that spectral cues are important for monaurally localizing sounds when one ear is obstructed, and that blind individuals are more sensitive to small spectral differences, we hypothesized that enhanced use of spectral cues via occipital cortex mechanisms could explain the better performance of blind individuals in monaural localization. Using positron-emission tomography (PET), we scanned blind and sighted persons as they discriminated between sounds originating from a single spatial position, but with different spectral profiles that simulated different spatial positions based on head-related transfer functions. We show here that a sub-group of early blind individuals showing superior monaural sound localization abilities performed significantly better than any other group on this spectral discrimination task. For all groups, performance was best for stimuli simulating peripheral positions, consistent with the notion that spectral cues are more helpful for discriminating peripheral sources. PET results showed that all blind groups showed cerebral blood flow increases in the occipital cortex; but this was also the case in the sighted group. A voxel-wise covariation analysis showed that more occipital recruitment was associated with better performance across all blind subjects but not the sighted. An inter-regional covariation analysis showed that the occipital activity in the blind covaried with that of several frontal and parietal regions known for their role in auditory spatial processing. Overall, these results support the notion that the superior ability of a sub-group of early-blind individuals to localize sounds is mediated by their superior ability to use spectral cues, and that this ability is subserved by cortical processing in the occipital cortex

Topics: Psychology
Publisher: Frontiers Research Foundation
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Provided by: PubMed Central

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