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A study by the University of Basel has looked into the neuronal fingerprint of hearing and listening. There is a significant difference between active listening and passive hearing. Scientists agree that the brain adjusts according to the type of sound processing. Factors that play a role in this include movement, an animated state, and attention.

Researchers induced passive hearing and active listening in mice

The researchers from the University of Basel published a paper in the Cell Reports journal explaining what happens in these processes. Before reaching this conclusion, the team evaluated four regions in the mice’s brain that play a role in processing complex sounds. The mice would listen to sound passively or actively when getting rewards.

The researchers found that the mice would listen actively when there was an award (soy milk). However, when there was no incentive, they would go back to passive hearing. Some neurons became more or less active depending on the listening. Moreover, all regions of the brain responded to the sound.

The researchers realized that the neuronal activity pattern changed between listening and hearing. However, Dr. Gioia De Franceschi from the Biomedicine department at the University of Basel states that not all neurons exhibited this behavior. The scientists found ten specific kinds of activity change.

Many neurons displayed changes in activity

A majority of the neurons displayed changes caused by attention levels. However, others showed modifications caused by the mice’s movement, available rewards, and arousal levels. Sometimes the changes were due to two or all of these factors.

The brain’s auditory pathway includes several nuclei that transmit acoustic information from the cochlea to the primary auditory cortex. From the four auditory pathways scientists looked into, two might be a higher level in processing complexity.

According to Professor Tania Rinaldi Barkat, a study co-author and neuroscientist, before embarking on the study, they had hypothesized that these areas are more impacted by attention to sound.

However, they realized that attention affected brain activity in regions scientists believed performed simple sound processing. The brain detecting a simple sound was a cognitive process that shaped its functioning even at the beginning stages of processing sensory information.