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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45579. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045579. Epub 2012 Sep 19.

Discrimination of low-frequency tones employs temporal fine structure.

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Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Laboratory of Sensory Neuroscience, The Rockefeller University, New York, NY, USA.


An auditory neuron can preserve the temporal fine structure of a low-frequency tone by phase-locking its response to the stimulus. Apart from sound localization, however, much about the role of this temporal information for signal processing in the brain remains unknown. Through psychoacoustic studies we provide direct evidence that humans employ temporal fine structure to discriminate between frequencies. To this end we construct tones that are based on a single frequency but in which, through the concatenation of wavelets, the phase changes randomly every few cycles. We then test the frequency discrimination of these phase-changing tones, of control tones without phase changes, and of short tones that consist of a single wavelet. For carrier frequencies below a few kilohertz we find that phase changes systematically worsen frequency discrimination. No such effect appears for higher carrier frequencies at which temporal information is not available in the central auditory system.

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