Noise is not the same as noise, and not even a quiet environment has the same effect as white noise.
Hearing pure sounds becomes even more effective with a backdrop of continuous white noise, as researchers at the University of Basel have shown in a report in Cell Reports. Their findings could be applied to cochlear implants ‘ further development.
Despite the importance of hearing in communication with humans, we still have very little understanding of how acoustic signals are perceived and how they are interpreted to make sense of them. However one thing is clear.
The better our hearing is, the more reliably we can discern sound patterns. But how can the brain differentiate between important and less relevant information especially in a background noise environment?
In a challenging sound environment, researchers led by Prof. Dr. Tania Rinaldi Barkat from the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel explored the neuronal basis of sound perception and sound discrimination.
The focus was on the “auditory brain” research into the auditory cortex, i.e. the brain area that processes acoustic stimuli. The resulting patterns of behavior are based on measurements in a mouse brain.
As is well known the closer they are in the frequency spectrum, the distinguishing between sounds becomes more difficult. The researchers initially assumed that additional noise could make it even more difficult for such a hearing mission.
Nevertheless, the reverse was observed: once white noise was applied to the background the team was able to show that the capacity of the brain to distinguish subtle tone variations improved.
Research group data showed that white noise inhibited the nerve cell function in the auditory cortex significantly paradoxically; this repression of neuronal excitation has resulted in a more reliable perception of pure tones.
“We found that during two different tone representations there was less overlap between neuron populations,” describes Professor Tania Barkat. “The overall decrease in neuronal activity produced a more distinct tone representation.”
The researchers used the optogenetic light-controlled technique to verify that the auditory cortex and not another part of the brain were responsible for the change in sound perception.
Their results may possibly be used in situations where sounds are difficult to distinguish to enhance auditory perception.
It is conceivable, according to Barkat, that cochlear implants could be activated with an effect similar to white noise to improve their users ‘ frequency resolution and thus the hearing result.


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