Abstract: Distortion products in auditory fMRI research: Measurements and solutions

Distortion products in auditory fMRI research: Measurements and solutions

S Norman-Haignere and J H McDermott

Published in Neuroimage, vol.129 pp. 401--413, Apr 2016.

DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.01.050


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  • Nonlinearities in the cochlea can introduce audio frequencies that are not present in the sound signal entering the ear. Known as distortion products (DPs), these added frequencies complicate the interpretation of auditory experiments. Sound production systems also introduce distortion via nonlinearities, a particular concern for fMRI research because the Sensimetrics earphones widely used for sound presentation are less linear than most high-end audio devices (due to design constraints). Here we describe the acoustic and neural effects of cochlear and earphone distortion in the context of fMRI studies of pitch perception, and discuss how their effects can be minimized with appropriate stimuli and masking noise. The amplitude of cochlear and Sensimetrics earphone DPs were measured for a large collection of harmonic stimuli to assess effects of level, frequency, and waveform amplitude. Cochlear DP amplitudes were highly sensitive to the absolute frequency of the DP, and were most prominent at frequencies below 300 Hz. Cochlear DPs could thus be effectively masked by low-frequency noise, as expected. Earphone DP amplitudes, in contrast, were highly sensitive to both stimulus and DP frequency (due to prominent resonances in the earphone's transfer function), and their levels grew more rapidly with increasing stimulus level than did cochlear DP amplitudes. As a result, earphone DP amplitudes often exceeded those of cochlear DPs. Using fMRI, we found that earphone DPs had a substantial effect on the response of pitch-sensitive cortical regions. In contrast, cochlear DPs had a small effect on cortical fMRI responses that did not reach statistical significance, consistent with their lower amplitudes. Based on these findings, we designed a set of pitch stimuli optimized for identifying pitch-responsive brain regions using fMRI. These stimuli robustly drive pitch-responsive brain regions while producing minimal cochlear and earphone distortion, and will hopefully aid fMRI researchers in avoiding distortion confounds.
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