Enhanced brainstem phase-locking in low-level noise reveals stochastic resonance in the frequency-following response (FFR)


In nonlinear systems, the inclusion of low-level noise can paradoxically improve signal detection, a phenomenon known as stochastic resonance (SR). SR has been observed in human hearing whereby sensory thresholds (e.g., signal detection and discrimination) are enhanced in the presence of noise. Here, we asked whether subcortical auditory processing (neural phase locking) shows evidence of SR. We recorded brainstem frequency-following-responses (FFRs) in young, normal-hearing listeners to near-electrophysiological-threshold (40 dB SPL) complex tones composed of 10 iso-amplitude harmonics of 150 Hz fundamental frequency (F0) presented concurrent with low-level noise (+20 to −20 dB SNRs). Though variable and weak across ears, some listeners showed improvement in auditory detection thresholds with subthreshold noise confirming SR psychophysically. At the neural level, low-level FFRs were initially eradicated by noise (expected masking effect) but were surprisingly reinvigorated at select masker levels (local maximum near ∼ 35 dB SPL). These data suggest brainstem phase-locking to near threshold periodic stimuli is enhanced in optimal levels of noise, the hallmark of SR. Our findings provide novel evidence for stochastic resonance in the human auditory brainstem and suggest that under some circumstances, noise can actually benefit both the behavioral and neural encoding of complex sounds.

Publication Title

Brain Research