Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
If you’ve been staying up late to watch the World Series, you probably spent those nine innings hoping for superstars Bryce Harper or José Altuve to square up a fastball and send it sailing out of the yard. Long-time baseball fans like me can distinguish immediately the loud crack of a home-run swing from the dull thud of a weak grounder.
Our brains have such a fascinating ability to discern “right” sounds from “wrong” ones in just an instant. This applies not only in baseball, but in the things that we do throughout the day, whether it’s hitting the right note on a musical instrument or pushing the car door just enough to click it shut without slamming.
Now, an NIH-funded team of neuroscientists has discovered what happens in the brain when one hears an expected or “right” sound versus a “wrong” one after completing a task. It turns out that the mammalian brain is remarkably good at predicting both when a sound should happen and what it ideally ought to sound like. Any notable mismatch between that expectation and the feedback, and the hearing center of the brain reacts.
It may seem intuitive that humans and other animals have this auditory ability, but researchers didn’t know how neurons in the brain’s auditory cortex, where sound is processed, make these snap judgements to learn complex tasks. In the study published in the journal Current Biology, David Schneider, New York University, New York, set out to understand how this familiar experience really works.
To do it, Schneider and colleagues, including postdoctoral fellow Nicholas Audette, looked to mice. They are a lot easier to study in the lab than humans and, while their brains aren’t miniature versions of our own, our sensory systems share many fundamental similarities because we are both mammals.
Of course, mice don’t go around hitting home runs or opening and closing doors. So, the researchers’ first step was training the animals to complete a task akin to closing the car door. To do it, they trained the animals to push a lever with their paws in just the right way to receive a reward. They also played a distinctive tone each time the lever reached that perfect position.
After making thousands of attempts and hearing the associated sound, the mice knew just what to do—and what it should sound like when they did it right. Their studies showed that, when the researchers removed the sound, played the wrong sound, or played the correct sound at the wrong time, the mice took notice and adjusted their actions, just as you might do if you pushed a car door shut and the resulting click wasn’t right.
To find out how neurons in the auditory cortex responded to produce the observed behaviors, Schneider’s team also recorded brain activity. Intriguingly, they found that auditory neurons hardly responded when a mouse pushed the lever and heard the sound they’d learned to expect. It was only when something about the sound was “off” that their auditory neurons suddenly crackled with activity.
As the researchers explained, it seems from these studies that the mammalian auditory cortex responds not to the sounds themselves but to how those sounds match up to, or violate, expectations. When the researchers canceled the sound altogether, as might happen if you didn’t push a car door hard enough to produce the familiar click shut, activity within a select group of auditory neurons spiked right as they should have heard the sound.
Schneider’s team notes that the same brain areas and circuitry that predict and process self-generated sounds in everyday tasks also play a role in conditions such as schizophrenia, in which people may hear voices or other sounds that aren’t there. The team hopes their studies will help to explain what goes wrong—and perhaps how to help—in schizophrenia and other neural disorders. Perhaps they’ll also learn more about what goes through the healthy brain when anticipating the satisfying click of a closed door or the loud crack of a World Series home run.
 Precise movement-based predictions in the mouse auditory cortex. Audette NJ, Zhou WX, Chioma A, Schneider DM. Curr Biology. 2022 Oct 24.
How Do We Hear? (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders/NIH)
Schizophrenia (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
David Schneider (New York University, New York)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders