Plasticity in auditory categorization is supported by differential engagement of the auditory-linguistic network


To construct our perceptual world, the brain categorizes variable sensory cues into behaviorally-relevant groupings. Categorical representations are apparent within a distributed fronto-temporo-parietal brain network but how this neural circuitry is shaped by experience remains undefined. Here, we asked whether speech and music categories might be formed within different auditory-linguistic brain regions depending on listeners’ auditory expertise. We recorded EEG in highly skilled (musicians) vs. less experienced (nonmusicians) perceivers as they rapidly categorized speech and musical sounds. Musicians showed perceptual enhancements across domains, yet source EEG data revealed a double dissociation in the neurobiological mechanisms supporting categorization between groups. Whereas musicians coded categories in primary auditory cortex (PAC), nonmusicians recruited non-auditory regions (e.g., inferior frontal gyrus, IFG) to generate category-level information. Functional connectivity confirmed nonmusicians’ increased left IFG involvement reflects stronger routing of signal from PAC directed to IFG, presumably because sensory coding is insufficient to construct categories in less experienced listeners. Our findings establish auditory experience modulates specific engagement and inter-regional communication in the auditory-linguistic network supporting categorical perception. Whereas early canonical PAC representations are sufficient to generate categories in highly trained ears, less experienced perceivers broadcast information downstream to higher-order linguistic brain areas (IFG) to construct abstract sound labels.

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