A Semantic Concept of Auditory Cortex Function and Learning

  • Henning Scheich
  • Frank W. Ohl


Auditory cortex (AC) differs from subcortical auditory nuclei due to its prominent learning-related plasticity (e.g., Suga and Ma 2003; Weinberger 2004; Irvine and Wright 2005; Ohl and Scheich 2005; Scheich et al. 2007) and the dominance of descending inputs from other cortical areas (Budinger et al. 2000b, 2006, 2008; Scheich et al. 2007). Thus, AC can be considered a bottom-up/top-down interface with its function comprising more than simply refining identification and discrimination of auditory stimulus properties for use in cognitive and behavioral tasks elsewhere. AC appears to be an active participant in such tasks (Scheich et al. 2006; Scheich et al. 2010). This role would require various learning strategies. While it is known that AC processing is modifiable by learning (see Chapters 22 and 4), the role of learning-induced changes in a behavioral and cognitive context is still uncertain. Considerations of the special nature of environmental sounds as information source in shaping auditory system evolution lead us to propose a semantic hypothesis of auditory cortex function and learning: AC processing and learning promotes behaviorally meaningful interpretations of sounds. It is not the sound event itself, but its presumed cause and/or behavioral consequence toward which the concern of the listener is ultimately directed. The semantics of any sound may not be explicitly available in AC. Rather, auditory cortical stimulus representations and their plasticity reflect implicit rules and cognitive strategies in auditory tasks through interactions with other cortical areas that attach meaning to sounds and predict behavioral performance. Similar processes may occur in other sensory modalities, but we propose that attributing behavioral meaning to a sound requires learning phenomena that are particularly salient in auditory cortex. In that sense, our proposal is an extension of the concept of auditory scene analysis (Bregman 1990) toward the semantic nature of auditory processing.


Receptive Field Auditory Cortex Category Formation Tone Sequence Natural Sound 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



auditory cortex


primary auditory cortex


amplitude modulation


best frequency


caudo-medial field




frequency modulation


functional magnetic resonance imaging


positron emission tomography



This work was supported by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG SFB 779, DFG SFB-TR31, DFG SFB-TR62), the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF 01GW0621, BMBF BioFuture 0311891, Bernstein grants (01GQ0733, 01GQ0702), the Volkwagen-Stiftung (VW I77356) and the European IST Programme (Project FP6-0027787). We thank Conny Bucks and Kathrin Ohl for technical assistance during the experiments. We also like to thank Drs. Michael Brosch and Peter Heil for critical reading of a previous version of the manuscript.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leibniz Institute for NeurobiologyMagdeburgGermany
  2. 2.Abteilung für NeuroscienceLeibniz-Institute for NeurobiologyMagdeburgGermany

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