Nonlinear auditory models yield new insights into representations of vowels
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Studies of vowel systems regularly appeal to the need to understand how the auditory system encodes and processes the information in the acoustic signal. The goal of this study is to present computational models to address this need, and to use the models to illustrate responses to vowels at two levels of the auditory pathway. Many of the models previously used to study auditory representations of speech are based on linear filter banks simulating the tuning of the inner ear. These models do not incorporate key nonlinear response properties of the inner ear that influence responses at conversational-speech sound levels. These nonlinear properties shape neural representations in ways that are important for understanding responses in the central nervous system. The model for auditory-nerve (AN) fibers used here incorporates realistic nonlinear properties associated with the basilar membrane, inner hair cells (IHCs), and the IHC-AN synapse. These nonlinearities set up profiles of f0-related fluctuations that vary in amplitude across the population of frequency-tuned AN fibers. Amplitude fluctuations in AN responses are smallest near formant peaks and largest at frequencies between formants. These f0-related fluctuations strongly excite or suppress neurons in the auditory midbrain, the first level of the auditory pathway where tuning for low-frequency fluctuations in sounds occurs. Formant-related amplitude fluctuations provide representations of the vowel spectrum in discharge rates of midbrain neurons. These representations in the midbrain are robust across a wide range of sound levels, including the entire range of conversational-speech levels, and in the presence of realistic background noise levels.
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