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Researchers locate brain's loudness map
Scientists in the UK have for the first time identified a region in the brain that processes changes in sound loudness, which could lead to improvements in brain implant technology.

The region where changes in sound frequency or pitch are processed in the brain, known as the inferior colliculi, is well known. The inferior colliculi are a pair of small brain structures early in the auditory pathway.

But scientists have long suspected a second region, or map, within the inferior colliculi which processes the rate of change of loudness of the sound.

Its discovery, lying in a plane at right angles to the frequency map, is reported in the latest online edition of Nature Neuroscience .

While the rate of change in loudness may seem rather esoteric, it is the pattern of changes over time that enables us to understand consonants in speech.

"This is what allows you to distinguish a 'p' from a 'd', for instance", says Dr Simon Baumann, who carried out the study with colleagues at The Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University in UK.

The researchers carried out experiments on three rhesus monkeys by imaging their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while playing sounds with loudness changing at different rates.

Baumann and colleagues spent a year gently familiarising the monkeys with the fMRI, so that they kept still whilst the measurements were being taken.

Using a higher than normal magnetic field repeated over many experiments on each monkey, the researchers were able to produce detailed pictures, which revealed the existence of the map for loudness changes.
Potential for human implants

"The next step will be to show that a similar map exists in humans", says Baumann.

According to Baumann, scientists in Germany and at Cochlear in Australia have been working on an electronic implant that directly stimulates the inferior colliculi, helping patients with neurofibromatosis type 2 - a genetic disorder causing tumours of the middle ear, often leading to untreatable deafness.

The implants have had some success, but patients have not been able to understand speech without using lip-reading.

Baumann suggests that knowing the site of the rate of change of loudness map may solve this problem by enabling the implant to be positioned more effectively.

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