Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Listening with your visual cortex.

We experience our environment through simultaneous stimulation of several sensory channels. Watching a movie is usually a visual and auditory experience. This integration from different sensory modalities helps with stimulus detection and discrimination in noisy environments. A traditional views of brain organization has postulated strict parceling into unisensory and and then multisensory cortical levels. Romei et al. have now shown in humans that auditory information goes directly to the primary visual cortex, before higher levels of integration.

When subjects are instructed to detect simple stimuli (a briefly presented pure tone, a small white disk, or a combination of the two), and their reaction times (RTs) are measured, reaction RTs are significantly better for the audio-visual (AV) condition than for both unimodal conditions, indicating a behavioral facilitation effect for stimuli presented simultaneously in both modalities. Romei et al. gave brief trans-cranial magnetic stimultion (TMS) to occipital poles of the subjects' heads. TMS effects over visual cortex in a timeframe from 60 to 75 ms after sensory stimulus onset would suggest an interaction with feedforward processes, whereas later effects might be caused by feedback from higher cortical regions. Thus, varying the delay from 30 to 150 ms between TMS and the preceding sensory stimulation in different sensory modalities enabled them to determine the processing type (feedforward or feedback), as well as the critical timeframe of visual cortex involvement in stimulus processing.

Relative to TMS over a control site, reactions times (RTs) to unisensory visual stimuli were prolonged by TMS at 60–75 ms poststimulus onset (visual suppression effect), confirming stimulation of functional visual cortex. Conversely, RTs to unisensory auditory stimuli were significantly shortened when visual cortex was stimulated by TMS at the same delays (beneficial interaction effect of auditory stimulation and occipital TMS). No TMS-effect on RTs was observed for AV stimulation. A follow-up experiment showed that auditory input enhances excitability within visual cortex itself over a similarly early time-window (75–120 ms).

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