Altered cortical and subcortical connectivity due to infrasound administered near the hearing threshold – Evidence from fMRI

The findings of this study  demonstrate that infrasound near the hearing threshold may induce changes of neural activity across several brain regions, some of which are known to be involved in auditory processing, while others are regarded as keyplayers in emotional and autonomic control. In other words, sound that is not audible can still trigger a response in the human brain.


In the present study, the brain’s response towards near- and supra-threshold infrasound (IS) stimulation (sound frequency < 20 Hz) was investigated under resting-state fMRI conditions.

The study involved two consecutive sessions. In the first session, 14 healthy participants underwent a hearing threshold—as well as a categorical loudness scaling measurement in which the individual loudness perception for IS was assessed across different sound pressure levels (SPL). In the second session, these participants underwent three resting-state acquisitions, one without auditory stimulation (no-tone), one with a monaurally presented 12-Hz IS tone (near-threshold) and one with a similar tone above the individual hearing threshold corresponding to a ‘medium loud’ hearing sensation (supra-threshold).

Data analysis mainly focused on local connectivity measures by means of regional homogeneity (ReHo), but also involved independent component analysis (ICA) to investigate interregional connectivity. ReHo analysis revealed significantly higher local connectivity in right superior temporal gyrus (STG) adjacent to primary auditory cortex, in anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and, when allowing smaller cluster sizes, also in the right amygdala (rAmyg) during the near-threshold, compared to both the supra-threshold and the no-tone condition. 

Additional independent component analysis (ICA) revealed large-scale changes of functional connectivity, reflected in a stronger activation of the right amygdala (rAmyg) in the opposite contrast (no-tone > near-threshold) as well as the right superior frontal gyrus (rSFG) during the near-threshold condition. In summary, this study is the first to demonstrate that infrasound near the hearing threshold may induce changes of neural activity across several brain regions, some of which are known to be involved in auditory processing, while others are regarded as keyplayers in emotional and autonomic control. These findings thus allow us to speculate on how continuous exposure to (sub-)liminal IS could exert a pathogenic influence on the organism, yet further (especially longitudinal) studies are required in order to substantialize these findings.


The question, whether infrasound (IS; sound in the very low-frequency range– 1 Hz < frequency < 20 Hz) can pose a threat to physical and mental well-being remains a much debated topic. For decades, it has been a widely held view that IS frequencies are too low to be processed by the auditory system, since the human hearing range is commonly quoted to only span frequencies from about 20 to 20000 Hz [1]. This view was supported by a number of studies conducted in animals as well as in humans demonstrating that the auditory system is equipped with several shunting and attenuation mechanisms, which are already involved in early stages of signal processing and make hearing at low frequencies quite insensitive [2–7]. However, the notion that IS cannot be processed within the auditory system has been contested by several studies, in which IS-induced changes of cochlear function in animals [8] as well as in normally hearing human participants [9]) have been documented. In fact, it has been shown repeatedly that IS can also be perceived by humans, if administered at very high sound pressure levels (SPLs) [10–17]). More recently, two fMRI studies also revealed that exposure to a monaurally presented 12-Hz IS tone with SPLs of > 110 dB led to bilateral activation of the superior temporal gyrus (STG), which suggests that the physiological mechanisms underlying IS perception may share similarities with those involved in ‘normal hearing’, even at the stage of high-level cortical processing [18–19].

Meanwhile, there seems to be a growing consensus that humans are indeed receptive to IS and that exposure to low-frequency sounds (including sounds in the IS frequency spectrum) can give rise to high levels of annoyance and distress [20]. However, IS also came under suspicion of promoting the formation of several full-blown medical symptoms ranging from sleep disturbances, headache and dizziness, over tinnitus and hyperacusis, to panic attacks and depression, which have been reported to occur more frequently in people living close to wind parks [21–23]. While it has been established that noise produced by wind turbines can indeed have a considerable very low-frequency component, IS emission only reaches SPL-maxima of around 80 to 90 dB [24–27], which may not be high enough to exceed the threshold for perception. Taking into consideration such results, Leventhall [1] thus concluded that “if you cannot hear a sound and you cannot perceive it in other ways and it does not affect you”. Importantly, this view also resonates well with the current position of the World Health Organisation (WHO), according to which “there is no reliable evidence that infrasounds below the hearing threshold produce physiological or psychological effects” [28]. However, it appears that the notion, according to which sound needs to be perceived in order to exert relevant effects on the organism, falls short when aiming at an objective risk assessment of IS, especially if one takes into consideration recent advances in research on inner ear physiology as well as on the effects of subliminal auditory stimulation (i.e. stimulation below the threshold of perception).

For example, 5-Hz IS exposure presented at SPLs as low as 60–65 dB has been shown to trigger the response of inner ear components such as the outer hair cells in animals [29] and it has been suggested that outer hair cell stimulation may also exert a broader influence on the nervous system via the brainstem [30–31]. In addition, there is the well documented effect in cognitive science that brain physiology and behavior can be influenced by a wide range of subliminally presented stimuli, including stimuli of the auditory domain [32–34]. 

We therefore set out to address the question, whether IS near the hearing threshold can also exert an influence on global brain activity and whether the effects of stimulation significantly differ from those induced by supra-threshold IS. In our experiment, IS stimuli were applied during the so called resting-state, in which participants were asked to lie calmly in the scanner with eyes closed, while being passively exposed to the sound. During resting-state, a characteristic pattern of endogenous large-scale brain activity emerges, which commonly involves the co-activation of multiple brain regions such as medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), precuneus, inferior parietal lobe (IPL), lateral temporal cortex (LTC), and hippocampal formation (HC) [35–36]. This activity causes fluctuations of the blood oxygen dependent (BOLD) signal, which can then be visualized using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rsfMRI). The fact that these brain regions consistently show a decrease in activity during task performance and an increase during fixation or rest has also led to the notion of a so-called default mode network [37]. Since a large portion of the IS that we are exposed to in our daily environment is produced by continuous sources such as windturbines, traffic (cars and planes) or air-conditioning systems, we reasoned that IS may rather exert influences on the nervous system as a constant and subtle source of (sub-)liminal stimulation, than a source of punctual stimulatory events. In contrast to an event-related approach, which would be characterized by short alterations of stimulus presentation and data aquisition (so called ‘sparse sampling’), rsfMRI allowes us to study the brain’s response to IS under conditions, which more closely resemble those found outside of the laboratory, where IS is often presented over long periods of time without dicontinuities in stimulus administration. One may argue that the way in which the term resting-state is used throughout the present article is at odds with the common understand of resting-state as a measure of baseline brain activity in the absence of experimental stimulation or task. However, researchers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the fact that rsfMRI cannot only be used as a suitable tool for measuring stable, trait-like characteristics, such as differences due to sexual dimorphism or health conditions. In fact, spontaneous, self-generated mental processes manifesting as moment-tomoment fluctuations of the participant’s mood or the „affective coloring”of thoughts and memories are an inevitable feature of any rsfMRI measurement and it has been argued repeatedly that a considerable portion of the statistical variance obtained during data aquisition can actually be explained by the heterogenity of the participant’s mental states [38–39]. Therefore, it is precisely this type of data–enriched with diverse experiental aspects gathered across a long stimulus interval, in contrast to short snippets of the brain’s immediate response to a novel stimulus–that allows us to best address the research questions presented above. 

In order to obtain a more robust signal for the comparison of different resting-state conditions, our analysis focussed on regional homogeneity (ReHo), a measure that captures the synchrony of resting-state brain activity in neighboring voxels–so-called local connectivity. In contrast to functional connectivity, which reveals synchronization of a predefined brain region, ReHo measures the local synchronization of spontaneous fMRI signals [40–42]. Importantly, ReHo circumvents the necessity to apriori define seed regions and therefore allows for an unbiased whole-brain analysis of resting-state data. Furthermore, it has also been shown that ReHo is higher in the major regions of the default mode network [43]. In order to obtain a more comprehensive assessment of the effect of IS, independent component analysis (ICA) was performed as an auxiliary analysis [44]. Similar to ReHo, ICA represents a data driven method, which relinquishes any initial assumptions about the spatial location of brain activations, while allowing to explore the temporal dynamics between more spatially segregated independent areas. Both methods are thus complementary in the sense that they allow for a characterization of the brain’s response to IS both on the local as well as on the network level in an unbiased fashion.


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APR 12 2017
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