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Aural localization of silent objects by active human biosonar: neural representations of virtual echo-acoustic space

Eur J Neurosci 41: 533-45. doi: 10.1111/ejn.12843

Authors/Editors: Wallmeier L
Kish D
Wiegrebe L
Flanagin VL
Publication Date: 2015
Type of Publication: Journal Articles 2001 - 2017


Some blind humans have developed the remarkable ability to detect and localize objects through the auditory analysis of self-generated tongue clicks. These echolocation experts show a corresponding increase in 'visual' cortex activity when listening to echo-acoustic sounds. Echolocation in real-life settings involves multiple reflections as well as active sound production, neither of which has been systematically addressed. We developed a virtualization technique that allows participants to actively perform such biosonar tasks in virtual echo-acoustic space during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Tongue clicks, emitted in the MRI scanner, are picked up by a microphone, convolved in real time with the binaural impulse responses of a virtual space, and presented via headphones as virtual echoes. In this manner, we investigated the brain activity during active echo-acoustic localization tasks. Our data show that, in blind echolocation experts, activations in the calcarine cortex are dramatically enhanced when a single reflector is introduced into otherwise anechoic virtual space. A pattern-classification analysis revealed that, in the blind, calcarine cortex activation patterns could discriminate left-side from right-side reflectors. This was found in both blind experts, but the effect was significant for only one of them. In sighted controls, 'visual' cortex activations were insignificant, but activation patterns in the planum temporale were sufficient to discriminate left-side from right-side reflectors. Our data suggest that blind and echolocation-trained, sighted subjects may recruit different neural substrates for the same active-echolocation task.

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