Neural Switch Asymmetry in Feature-Based Auditory Attention Tasks

  • Susan A. McLaughlin
  • Eric Larson
  • Adrian K. C. LeeEmail author
Research Article


Active listening involves dynamically switching attention between competing talkers and is essential to following conversations in everyday environments. Previous investigations in human listeners have examined the neural mechanisms that support switching auditory attention within the acoustic featural cues of pitch and auditory space. Here, we explored the cortical circuitry underlying endogenous switching of auditory attention between pitch and spatial cues necessary to discern target from masker words. Because these tasks are of unequal difficulty, we expected an asymmetry in behavioral switch costs for hard-to-easy versus easy-to-hard switches, mirroring prior evidence from vision-based cognitive task-switching paradigms. We investigated the neural correlates of this behavioral switch asymmetry and associated cognitive control operations in the present auditory paradigm. Behaviorally, we observed no switch-cost asymmetry, i.e., no performance difference for switching from the more difficult attend-pitch to the easier attend-space condition (P→S) versus switching from easy-to-hard (S→P). However, left lateral prefrontal cortex activity, correlated with improved performance, was observed during a silent gap period when listeners switched attention from P→S, relative to switching within pitch cues. No such differential activity was seen for the analogous easy-to-hard switch. We hypothesize that this neural switch asymmetry reflects proactive cognitive control mechanisms that successfully reconfigured neurally-specified task parameters and resolved competition from other such “task sets,” thereby obviating the expected behavioral switch-cost asymmetry. The neural switch activity observed was generally consistent with that seen in cognitive paradigms, suggesting that established cognitive models of attention switching may be productively applied to better understand similar processes in audition.


auditory attention active listening neural switch asymmetry dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) MEG EEG 


Funding Information

This research was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant R01 DC013260 to AKCL.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Association for Research in Otolaryngology 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Learning and Brain SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Speech and Hearing SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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