The ability to detect and track relevant acoustic signals embedded in a background of other sounds is crucial for hearing in complex acoustic environments. This ability is exemplified by a perceptual phenomenon known as "rhythmic masking release" (RMR). To demonstrate RMR, a sequence of tones forming a target rhythm is intermingled with physically identical "Distracter" sounds that perceptually mask the rhythm. The rhythm can be "released from masking" by adding "Flanker" tones in adjacent frequency channels that are synchronous with the Distracters. RMR represents a special case of auditory stream segregation, whereby the target rhythm is perceptually segregated from the background of Distracters when they are accompanied by the synchronous Flankers. The neural basis of RMR is unknown. Previous studies suggest the involvement of primary auditory cortex (A1) in the perceptual organization of sound patterns. Here, we recorded neural responses to RMR sequences in A1 of awake monkeys in order to identify neural correlates and potential mechanisms of RMR. We also tested whether two current models of stream segregation, when applied to these responses, could account for the perceptual organization of RMR sequences. Results suggest a key role for suppression of Distracter-evoked responses by the simultaneous Flankers in the perceptual restoration of the target rhythm in RMR. Furthermore, predictions of stream segregation models paralleled the psychoacoustics of RMR in humans. These findings reinforce the view that preattentive or "primitive" aspects of auditory scene analysis may be explained by relatively basic neural mechanisms at the cortical level.
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