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Front Hum Neurosci. 2013 Apr 4;7:115. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00115. eCollection 2013.

Quantifying attentional modulation of auditory-evoked cortical responses from single-trial electroencephalography.

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1
Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology, Boston University Boston, MA, USA.

Abstract

Selective auditory attention is essential for human listeners to be able to communicate in multi-source environments. Selective attention is known to modulate the neural representation of the auditory scene, boosting the representation of a target sound relative to the background, but the strength of this modulation, and the mechanisms contributing to it, are not well understood. Here, listeners performed a behavioral experiment demanding sustained, focused spatial auditory attention while we measured cortical responses using electroencephalography (EEG). We presented three concurrent melodic streams; listeners were asked to attend and analyze the melodic contour of one of the streams, randomly selected from trial to trial. In a control task, listeners heard the same sound mixtures, but performed the contour judgment task on a series of visual arrows, ignoring all auditory streams. We found that the cortical responses could be fit as weighted sum of event-related potentials evoked by the stimulus onsets in the competing streams. The weighting to a given stream was roughly 10 dB higher when it was attended compared to when another auditory stream was attended; during the visual task, the auditory gains were intermediate. We then used a template-matching classification scheme to classify single-trial EEG results. We found that in all subjects, we could determine which stream the subject was attending significantly better than by chance. By directly quantifying the effect of selective attention on auditory cortical responses, these results reveal that focused auditory attention both suppresses the response to an unattended stream and enhances the response to an attended stream. The single-trial classification results add to the growing body of literature suggesting that auditory attentional modulation is sufficiently robust that it could be used as a control mechanism in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs).

KEYWORDS:

auditory attention; auditory event-related potentials; brain−computer interfaces; single-trial classification; spatial attention

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