The Mechanisms and Meaning of the Mismatch Negativity
The mismatch negativity (MMN) is a pre-attentive auditory event-related potential (ERP) component that is elicited by a change in a repetitive acoustic pattern. It is obtained by subtracting responses evoked by frequent ‘standard’ sounds from responses evoked by infrequent ‘deviant’ sounds that differ from the standards along some acoustic dimension, e.g., frequency, intensity, or duration, or abstract feature. The MMN has been attributed to neural generators within the temporal and frontal lobes. The mechanisms and meaning of the MMN continue to be debated. Two dominant explanations for the MMN have been proposed. According to the “neural adaptation” hypothesis, repeated presentation of the standards results in adapted (i.e., attenuated) responses of feature-selective neurons in auditory cortex. Rare deviant sounds activate neurons that are less adapted than those stimulated by the frequent standard sounds, and thus elicit a larger ‘obligatory’ response, which yields the MMN following the subtraction procedure. In contrast, according to the “sensory memory” hypothesis, the MMN is a ‘novel’ (non-obligatory) ERP component that reflects a deviation between properties of an incoming sound and those of a neural ‘memory trace’ established by the preceding standard sounds. Here, we provide a selective review of studies which are relevant to the controversy between proponents of these two interpretations of the MMN. We also present preliminary neurophysiological data from monkey auditory cortex with potential implications for the debate. We conclude that the mechanisms and meaning of the MMN are still unresolved and offer remarks on how to make progress on these important issues.