Many environmental stimuli contain temporal regularities, a feature which can help predict forthcoming input. Phase-locking (entrainment) of ongoing low-frequency neuronal oscillations to rhythmic stimuli is proposed as a potential mechanism for enhancing neuronal responses and perceptual sensitivity, by aligning high-excitability phases to events within a stimulus stream. Previous experiments show that rhythmic structure has a behavioral benefit even when the rhythm itself is below perceptual detection thresholds (Ten Oever et al., 2014). It is not known whether this “inaudible” rhythmic sound stream also induces entrainment. Here we tested this hypothesis using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and electrocorticography (ECoG) in humans to record changes in neuronal activity as subthreshold rhythmic stimuli gradually became audible. We found that significant phase-locking to the rhythmic sounds preceded participants' detection of them. Moreover, no significant auditory-evoked responses accompanied this pre-threshold entrainment. These auditory-evoked responses, distinguished by robust, broad-band increases in inter-trial coherence (ITC), only appeared after sounds were reported as audible. Taken together with the reduced perceptual thresholds observed for rhythmic sequences, these findings support the proposition that entrainment of low-frequency oscillations serves a mechanistic role in enhancing perceptual sensitivity for temporally-predictive sounds. This framework has broad implications for understanding the neural mechanisms involved in generating temporal predictions and their relevance for perception, attention, and awareness.
The environment is full of rhythmically structured signals that the nervous system can exploit for information processing. Thus it is important to understand how the brain processes such temporally structured, regular features of external stimuli. Here we report the alignment of slowly fluctuating oscillatory brain activity to external rhythmic structure prior to its behavioral detection. These results indicate that phase alignment is a general mechanism of the brain to process rhythmic structure, and can occur without the perceptual detection of this temporal structure.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
This study was supported by a grant from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO; 406-11-068), the I-CORE Program of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, The Israel Science Foundation (grant No. 51/11)", the NIH (MH103814, EY024776, and R01DC05660), the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant No. 148388), and the Page and Otto Marx Jr. Foundation.