Goal-directed attention to sound identity (what) and sound location (where) has been associated with increased neural activity in ventral and dorsal brain regions, respectively. In order to ascertain when such segregation occurs, we measured event-related potentials during an n-back (n = 1, 2) working memory task for sound identity or location, where stimuli selected randomly from 3 semantic categories (human, animal, music) were presented at 3 possible virtual locations. Accuracy and reaction times were comparable in both "what" and "where" tasks, albeit worse for the 2-back than for the 1-back condition. The partial least squares analysis of scalp-recorded and source waveform data revealed domain-specific activity beginning at about 200-ms poststimulus onset, which was best expressed as changes in source activity near Heschl's gyrus, and in central medial, occipital medial, right frontal and right parietal cortex. The effect of working memory load emerged at about 400-ms poststimulus and was expressed maximally over frontocentral scalp region and in sources located in the right temporal, frontal and parietal cortices. The results show that for identical sounds, top-down effects on processing "what" and "where" information is observable at about 200 ms after sound onset and involves a widely distributed neural network.
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