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University of Helsinki CBRU

Cognitive Brain Research Unit


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Cognitive Brain Research Unit,
Department of Psychology,
PO BOX 9 (Siltavuorenpenger 20 C)
00014 University of Helsinki,
tel. +358 9 191 29451
fax. +358 9 191 29450

Mismatch Negativity (MMN)

The mismatch negativity (MMN) is a component of the auditory event related potential (ERP) which is elicited task-independently by an infrequent  change in a repetitive sound. The MMN can be recorded in response to any discriminable change in the stimulus stream. The MMN data imply the existence of a sensory-memory trace in which the features of the frequently occurring standard stimuli are represented. One can probe this trace by presenting deviant stimuli of different magnitudes and thus indirectly determine the accuracy of this central sound representation. Several recent studies have shown that these representations govern attentive auditory discrimination ability in humans. Therefore the MMN is an objective, easilyquantifiable index of the quality of sensory stimulus representations from which auditory percepts are built. The most recent studies have provided evidence that even complex, temporal, linguistic stimulus features and long-term learning effects are reflected in MMN responses, thus significantly broadening the theoretical scope of the MMN research. The MMN is consequently of great potential interest in attempts to understandcentral auditory function, its development, and various forms of its pathology.

Processing of sensory stimulus features is essential for humans in determining their responses and actions. If behaviourally relevant aspects of the environment are not correctly represented in the brain, then the organism's behaviour cannot be appropriate. Without these representations our ability to understand spoken language, for example, would be seriously impaired. Cognitive neuroscience has consequently emphasised the importance of understanding brain mechanisms of sensory information processing, that is, the sensory prerequisites of cognition. Most of the data obtained, unfortunately, do not allow the objective measurement of the accuracy of these stimulus representations (see Näätänen, 1992). In audition, recent cognitive neuroscience seems to have succeeded in extracting such a measure, however. This is the mismatch negativity (MMN), a component of the event-related potential (ERP), first reported by Näätänen, Gaillard, and Mäntysalo (1978). An in-depth review of MMN research can be found in Näätänen (1992) while other recent reviews also provide information on the generator mechanisms of MMN (Alho 1995), its magnetic counterpart, MMNm (Näätänen, Ilmoniemi & Alho, 1994), and its clinical applicability (Näätänen & Alho, 1995).

The MMN for Basic Stimulus Features
MMN is evoked by an infrequently presented stimulus ("deviant"), differing from the frequently-occurring stimuli ("standards") in one or several physical parameters like duration, intensity, or frequency (Näätänen, 1992). In addition, it is generated by a change in spectrally complex stimuli like phonemes,  in synthesised instrumental tones, or in the spectral component of tone timbre. Also the temporal order reversals elicit an MMN when successive sound elements differ either in frequency, intensity, or duration The MMN is not elicited by stimuli with deviant stimulus parameters when they are presented without the intervening standards. The MMN has, therefore, been suggested to reflect a change detection when a memory trace representing the constant standard stimulus and the neural code of the stimulus with deviant parameter(s) are discrepant (Click here for more specific information)

MMN vs Auditory Sensory Memory
The MMN data provide evidence that stimulus features are separately analysed and stored in the vicinity of auditory cortex. The close resemblance of the behaviour of the MMN to that of the previously behaviourally observed "echoic" memory system strongly suggests that the MMN provides a non-invasive, objective, task-independently measurable physiological correlate of stimulus-feature representations in auditory sensory memory. (Click here for more specific information)

Relationship to Attentional Processes
The experimental evidence suggests that the auditory sensory memory index MMN provides sensory data for attentional processes, and, in essence, governs certain aspects of attentive information processing. This is evident in the finding that the latency of the MMN determines the timing of behavioural responses to changes in the auditory environment. Furthermore, even individual differences in discrimination ability can be probed with the MMN. The MMN is also a likely component of the chain of brain events causing attention switches to changes in the environment. In the light of these observations, it seems that at present the MMN provides the best available physiological measure of automatic central auditory processing.
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MMN in clinical research. The MMN has been documented in a number of studies to disclose neuropathological changes. Presently, the accumulated body of evidence suggests that while the MMN offers unique opportunities to basic research of the information processing of a healthy brain, it might be useful in tapping neurodegenerative changes as well. The clinical populations studied in CBRU include:

  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • schizophrenia
  • dyslexia
  • aphasia
  • alcoholism
MMN, which is elicited irrespective of attention, provides an objective means for evaluating possible auditory discrimination and sensory-memory anomalies in such clinical groups as dyslexics and patients with aphasia, who have a multitude of symptoms including attentional problems. Our recent results suggest that a major problem underlying the reading deficit in dyslexia might be an inability of the dyslexics' auditory cortex to adequately model complex sound patterns with fast temporal variation. According to the results of our ongoing study, MMN might also be used in the evaluation of auditory perception deficits in aphasia.

AD patients demonstrate decreased amplitude of MMN, especially with long inter-stimulus intervals; this is thought to reflect reduced span of auditory sensory memory. Parkinsonian patients do demonstrate a similar deficit pattern, whereas alcoholism would appear to enhance the MMN response. This latter, seemingly contradictory, finding could be explained by hyperexcitability of CNS neurones resulting from neuroadaptive changes taking place during a heavy drinking bout.

While the results obtained thus far seem encouraging, several steps need to be taken before the MMN can be used as a clinical tool in patient treatment. Recently, a project funded by EU, COBRAIN, has been assembled to tackle some of the key signal-analysis problems encountered in development of clinical use of MMN. Nevertheless, as it stands, clinical research employing the MMN has already produced significant knowledge on the CNS functional changes related to cognitive decline in the aforementioned clinical disorders.



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List of References

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Joutsiniemi, S. L., Ilvonen, T., Rinne, T., Tervaniemi, M., & Näätänen, R. (in preparation) Individual mismatch negativities to duration decrement.

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