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Student Research: Study Shows How Brain Combines Subtle Sensory Signals to Take Notice

March 24, 2017

New research in eLife explains how the developing brain learns to integrate and react to subtle but simultaneous sensory cues — sound, touch and visual — that would be ignored individually. Torrey Truszkowski, a neuroscience doctoral student, was lead author of the paper in eLife. Such “multisensory integration” (MSI) is a vital skill for young brains to develop, said the authors, because it shapes how effectively animals can make sense of their surroundings.

For a mouse, that ability can make the difference between life and death. Neither a faint screech nor a tiny black speck in the sky might trigger any worry, but the two together strongly suggest a hawk is in the air. It matters in daily human life, too. An incoming call on a cell phone can be more noticeable when it is signaled visually and with sound, for example.

“It’s really important to understand how all of our senses interact to give us a whole picture of the world,” said Truszkowski. “If something is super salient in the visual system — a bright flash of light — you don’t need the multisensory mechanism. If there is only a small change in light levels, you might ignore it — but if in the same area of visual space you also have a piece of auditory information coming in, then you are more likely to notice that and decide if you need to do something about that.”

Read more of David Orenstein's article about sensory signals.