There is controversy as to what extent the processing of spectrally rich sounds in the human auditory cortex is related to the processing of singular frequencies. An informative index of the function of the auditory cortex, particularly important in neurological patients, is the mismatch negativity (MMN), a component of auditory event-related potentials. In the present study the MMN was recorded in 79 patients with extremely severe diffuse brain injuries, most of them in persistent vegetative state or minimal consciousness state. Both sinusoidal ('pure') and complex musical tones were used. Different statistical approaches converged in that musical tones elicited an MMN significantly more frequently, and of a larger amplitude, than simple sine tones. This implies that using simple stimuli in clinical populations may lead to a severe underestimation of the functional state of a patient's auditory system. The findings are also in line with behavioral and physiological data indicating independent processing of complex sounds in the auditory cortex. © 2003 Published by Elsevier Ireland Ltd.
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