Auditory cognition (the mind’s ear) describes a group of processes by which the brain makes sense of the sound world. We study the normal processes and how these go wrong in brain disorders.
We study the normal perception of complex sound relevant to the analysis of speech, music and environmental sounds, and their associated brain bases. We study the brain bases using behavioural and neurophysiological models, functional imaging with functional MRI, electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography and electrode recordings in neurosurgical patients.
Our work concerns auditory perception and involves the auditory system in the brainstem and auditory cortex—but auditory cognition also involves attention, memory and emotional responses and requires many brain systems that are not conventionally considered parts of the auditory brain. A complete understanding of auditory processes will include both low-level perceptual processes and higher-level cognition.
We also study the effect of brain disorders on auditory cognition. A number of disorders are associated with deficient auditory cognition, including common developmental disorders like dyslexia, acquired disorders like stroke, and degenerative disorders like dementia. Tinnitus and auditory hallucinations can also be considered as derangements of auditory cognition. Another cognitive phenomenon is misophonia—a disorder of emotional sound analysis. By combining measurements of brain activity with neurophysiological models, we have provided key insights into the functional architecture of these disorders.
Our work is benefited by collaborations between the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging, Newcastle University Medical School, and the Human Brain Research Laboratory at the University of Iowa. We have members of our group at each of these three centres, and complementary work is carried out at all three locations.
Many people experience pronounced difficulty understanding speech when background noise is present. A major focus of our current work is to establish key aspects of auditory cognition that determine the ability to understand speech in noisy places. Problems with speech perception can be associated with hearing loss when the ear does not work properly, but even subjects who have ‘normal hearing’ on traditional clinical measures have widely differing abilities. Our current work seeks to develop measures of auditory working memory and scene analysis that can explain why some people find it difficult to understand speech in noisy places. We hope to establish the brain mechanisms associated with these processes, and apply the measures to patients who have recently undergone cochlear implantation, which offers potential for predicting patient outcomes.