Brain wiring quiets the voice inside your head

A mouse brain's motor cortex shows a subset of neurons, labeled in orange, that have long axons extending to the auditory cortex. These neurons convey movement-related signals that can alter hearing. Blue dots in the background show brain cells that do not send axons to the auditory cortex. Credit: Richard Mooney Lab, Duke University

During a normal conversation, your brain is constantly adjusting the volume to soften the sound of your own voice and boost the voices of others in the room.

This ability to distinguish between the sounds generated from your own movements and those coming from the outside world is important not only for catching up on water cooler gossip, but also for learning how to speak or play a .

Now, researchers have developed the first diagram of the that enables this complex interplay between the motor system and the to occur.

The research, which appears Sept. 4 in The Journal of Neuroscience, could lend insight into and that arise when this circuitry goes awry and individuals hear voices other people do not hear.

"Our finding is important because it provides the blueprint for understanding how the communicates with itself, and how that communication can break down to cause disease," said Richard Mooney, Ph.D., senior author of the study and professor of at Duke University School of Medicine. "Normally, motor regions would warn auditory regions that they are making a command to speak, so be prepared for a sound. But in , you can no longer distinguish between the activity in your motor system and somebody else's, and you think the sounds coming from within your own brain are external."

Researchers have long surmised that the conveying movement—to voice an opinion or hit a piano key—also feeds into the wiring that senses sound. But the nature of the that provided that input, and how they functionally interacted to help the brain anticipate the impending sound, was not known.

In this study, Mooney used a technology created by Fan Wang, Ph.D., associate professor of at Duke, to trace all of the inputs into the —the sound-interpreting region of the brain. Though the researchers found that a number of different areas of the brain fed into the auditory cortex, they were most interested in one region called the secondary motor cortex, or M2, because it is responsible for sending motor signals directly into the brain stem and the spinal cord.

"That suggests these neurons are providing a copy of the motor command directly to the auditory system," said David M. Schneider, Ph.D., co-lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in Mooney's lab. "In other words, they send a signal that says 'move,' but they also send a signal to the auditory system saying 'I am going to move.'"

Having discovered this connection, the researchers then explored what type of influence this interaction was having on auditory processing or hearing. They took slices of brain tissue from mice and specifically manipulated the neurons that led from the M2 region to the auditory cortex. The researchers found that stimulating those neurons actually dampened the activity of the auditory cortex.

"It jibed nicely with our expectations," said Anders Nelson, co-lead author of the study and a graduate student in Mooney's lab. "It is the brain's way of muting or suppressing the sounds that come from our own actions."

Finally, the researchers tested this circuitry in live animals, artificially turning on the motor neurons in anesthetized mice and then looking to see how the auditory cortex responded. Mice usually sing to each other through a kind of song called ultrasonic vocalizations, which are too high-pitched for a human to hear. The researchers played back these ultrasonic vocalizations to the mice after they had activated the motor cortex and found that the neurons became much less responsive to the sounds.

"It appears that the functional role that these neurons play on hearing is they make sounds we generate seem quieter," said Mooney. "The question we now want to know is if this is the mechanism that is being used when an animal is actually moving. That is the missing link, and the subject of our ongoing experiments."

Once the researchers have pinned down the basics of the circuitry, they could begin to investigate whether altering this circuitry could induce auditory hallucinations or perhaps even take them away in models of schizophrenia.

More information: "A Circuit for Motor Cortical Modulation of Auditory Cortical Activity," Anders Nelson, David M. Schneider, Jun Takatoh, Katsuyasu Sakurai, Fan Wang, Richard Mooney. The Journal of Neuroscience, Sept. 4, 2013. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2275-13.2013

Related Stories

Help at hand for people with schizophrenia

May 24, 2013

How can healthy people who hear voices help schizophrenics? Finding the answer for this is at the centre of research conducted at the University of Bergen.

Inner speech speaks volumes about the brain

Jul 16, 2013

Whether you're reading the paper or thinking through your schedule for the day, chances are that you're hearing yourself speak even if you're not saying words out loud. This internal speech—the monologue you "hear" inside ...

Recommended for you

New ALS associated gene identified using innovative strategy

20 hours ago

Using an innovative exome sequencing strategy, a team of international scientists led by John Landers, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has shown that TUBA4A, the gene encoding the Tubulin Alpha 4A protein, ...

Can bariatric surgery lead to severe headache?

20 hours ago

Bariatric surgery may be a risk factor for a condition that causes severe headaches, according to a study published in the October 22, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurol ...

Bipolar disorder discovery at the nano level

21 hours ago

A nano-sized discovery by Northwestern Medicine scientists helps explain how bipolar disorder affects the brain and could one day lead to new drug therapies to treat the mental illness.

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
1 / 5 (1) Sep 04, 2013
The problem with this explanation is that deaf people also hear voices and there is never any impulse to speak (because they are deaf from birth). Paper here:

Prelingually profoundly deaf schizophrenic patients who hear voices: a phenomenological analysis

M. DuFeu, P. J. McKenna

Abridged Abstract:
Conclusion: These findings suggest that auditory hallucinations are a common phenomenon in profoundly prelingually deaf schizophrenic patients, which cannot be accounted for by the above explanations.

Wiley, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, Volume 99, Issue 6, pages 453–459, June 1999
http://onlinelibr...abstract