Does attention play a role in dynamic receptive field adaptation to changing acoustic salience in A1?

Jonathan B. Fritz, Mounya Elhilali, Stephen V. David, Shihab A. Shamma

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

124 Scopus citations


Acoustic filter properties of A1 neurons can dynamically adapt to stimulus statistics, classical conditioning, instrumental learning and the changing auditory attentional focus. We have recently developed an experimental paradigm that allows us to view cortical receptive field plasticity on-line as the animal meets different behavioral challenges by attending to salient acoustic cues and changing its cortical filters to enhance performance. We propose that attention is the key trigger that initiates a cascade of events leading to the dynamic receptive field changes that we observe. In our paradigm, ferrets were initially trained, using conditioned avoidance training techniques, to discriminate between background noise stimuli (temporally orthogonal ripple combinations) and foreground tonal target stimuli. They learned to generalize the task for a wide variety of distinct background and foreground target stimuli. We recorded cortical activity in the awake behaving animal and computed on-line spectrotemporal receptive fields (STRFs) of single neurons in A1. We observed clear, predictable task-related changes in STRF shape while the animal performed spectral tasks (including single tone and multi-tone detection, and two-tone discrimination) with different tonal targets. A different set of task-related changes occurred when the animal performed temporal tasks (including gap detection and click-rate discrimination). Distinctive cortical STRF changes may constitute a "task-specific signature". These spectral and temporal changes in cortical filters occur quite rapidly, within 2 min of task onset, and fade just as quickly after task completion, or in some cases, persisted for hours. The same cell could multiplex by differentially changing its receptive field in different task conditions. On-line dynamic task-related changes, as well as persistent plastic changes, were observed at a single-unit, multi-unit and population level. Auditory attention is likely to be pivotal in mediating these task-related changes since the magnitude of STRF changes correlated with behavioral performance on tasks with novel targets. Overall, these results suggest the presence of an attention-triggered plasticity algorithm in A1 that can swiftly change STRF shape by transforming receptive fields to enhance figure/ground separation, by using a contrast matched filter to filter out the background, while simultaneously enhancing the salient acoustic target in the foreground. These results favor the view of a nimble, dynamic, attentive and adaptive brain that can quickly reshape its sensory filter properties and sensori-motor links on a moment-to-moment basis, depending upon the current challenges the animal faces. In this review, we summarize our results in the context of a broader survey of the field of auditory attention, and then consider neuronal networks that could give rise to this phenomenon of attention-driven receptive field plasticity in A1.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)186-203
Number of pages18
JournalHearing Research
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • A1
  • Acoustic salience
  • Attention
  • Auditory cortex
  • Ferret
  • Plasticity
  • Receptive field
  • STRF

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems


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