Perception and neural coding of harmonic fusion in ferrets

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The cortical neural correlates for the perception of harmonic sounds have remained a puzzle despite intense study over several decades. This study approached the problem from the point of view of the spectral fusion evoked by such sounds. Experiment 1 tested whether ferrets automatically fuse harmonic complex tones. In baseline sessions, three ferrets were trained to detect a pure tone terminating a sequence of inharmonic complex tones. After the ferrets reached proficiency in the baseline task, a small fraction of the inharmonic complex tones were replaced with harmonic tones. Two out of three ferrets confused the harmonic complex tones with the pure tones and responded as if detecting the pure tone at twice the false-alarm rate, indicating that ferrets can automatically fuse the partials of a harmonic complex. Experiment 2 sought correlates of harmonic fusion in single units of ferret primary auditory cortex (AI), by contrasting responses to harmonic complex tones with those to inharmonic complex tones. The effects of spectrotemporal filtering were accounted for by using the measured spectrotemporal receptive field to predict responses and by seeking correlates of harmonic fusion in the predictability of the responses. Ten percent of units exhibited some correlates of harmonic fusion, which is consistent with previous findings that no special processing for harmonic stimuli occurs in AI.