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Trends Neurosci. 2005 Apr;28(4):176-81.

Brainstem origins for cortical 'what' and 'where' pathways in the auditory system.

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Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, Frances Searle Building, 2240 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.


We have developed a data-driven conceptual framework that links two areas of science: the source-filter model of acoustics and cortical sensory processing streams. The source-filter model describes the mechanics behind speech production: the identity of the speaker is carried largely in the vocal cord source and the message is shaped by the ever-changing filters of the vocal tract. Sensory processing streams, popularly called 'what' and 'where' pathways, are well established in the visual system as a neural scheme for separately carrying different facets of visual objects, namely their identity and their position/motion, to the cortex. A similar functional organization has been postulated in the auditory system. Both speaker identity and the spoken message, which are simultaneously conveyed in the acoustic structure of speech, can be disentangled into discrete brainstem response components. We argue that these two response classes are early manifestations of auditory 'what' and 'where' streams in the cortex. This brainstem link forges a new understanding of the relationship between the acoustics of speech and cortical processing streams, unites two hitherto separate areas in science, and provides a model for future investigations of auditory function.

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