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Dimension-based auditory selective attention

Project overview

Human communication, and other behaviours that depend upon listening, often take place in acoustically complex or noisy environments like schools, restaurants and workplaces. As a result much of daily life requires us to select and attend to behaviourally-relevant auditory dimensions and potentially suppress irrelevant dimensions so that the relevant information can be remembered and responded to appropriately. Unfortunately, this vital everyday ability is affected by many neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury, stroke and developmental communication disorders, resulting in marked decreases in quality of life.

Despite the importance of auditory selective attention, its cognitive and neural mechanisms are poorly understood and it is not clear how best to approach remediation. In particular, there is limited evidence to inform ongoing debates about whether suppression of sounds outside of the attentional focus is a significant factor in human auditory selective attention and how listeners direct attention to specific auditory dimensions when cues about the spatial location of sounds are unavailable.

The Birkbeck project lead for this project is Professor Fred Dick and it has been funded by National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Research aims

The long-term goal of the proposed research is to advance a mechanistic understanding of auditory selective attention.

The present project pursues the central hypothesis that human dimension-based auditory selective attention is a result of processes related to both enhancement (of task-relevant sounds) and suppression (of task-irrelevant sounds). Supporting the proposed research, preliminary studies establish a non-speech experimental paradigm for engaging - and improving – dimension-based auditory selective attention to specific frequency bands, and for non-invasively mapping it across auditory cortex using combined structural/functional MRI.

A parallel pilot study establishes cortical electrophysiological measures of auditory selective attention that track with improvements due to attention training. The novel approach used in the proposed research allows for isolation and manipulation of specific auditory dimensions to understand the cognitive and neural underpinnings of auditory selective attention.

  • Our first aim will wed these innovative new approaches with a classic human psychophysics paradigm to measure the fine-grained 'listening window' through which auditory selective attention prioritizes relevant dimensions, and potentially suppresses irrelevant dimensions. These studies will also test the extent to which tasks and expectations created from input regularities shape the listening window.
  • Our second aim will use attention training as a tool to triangulate on mechanism to map the balance of enhancement and suppression across a dimension as a function of training to better deploy selective attention to the dimension.
  • Our third aim builds upon the approach of using training to reveal mechanism based on the hypothesis that training-related improvements in auditory selective attention affect - and thereby potentially rely upon - structural (cortical myelination, areal connectivity) and functional (alignment of cortical activation to an attended frequency band) changes in multiple neural systems.

Outputs and outcomes

At a broad level, the project will support the development of mechanistic cognitive and neurobiological theoretical models of dimension-based auditory selective attention with the potential to guide future clinical approaches to the diagnosis and remediation of auditory attention impairments.