Grabbing your ear: rapid auditory-somatosensory multisensory interactions in low-level sensory cortices are not constrained by stimulus alignment.
Multisensory interactions are observed in species from single-cell organisms to humans. Important early work was primarily carried out in the cat superior colliculus and a set of critical parameters for their occurrence were defined. Primary among these were temporal synchrony and spatial alignment of bisensory inputs. Here, we assessed whether spatial alignment was also a critical parameter for the temporally earliest multisensory interactions that are observed in lower-level sensory cortices of the human. While multisensory interactions in humans have been shown behaviorally for spatially disparate stimuli (e.g. the ventriloquist effect), it is not clear if such effects are due to early sensory level integration or later perceptual level processing. In the present study, we used psychophysical and electrophysiological indices to show that auditory-somatosensory interactions in humans occur via the same early sensory mechanism both when stimuli are in and out of spatial register. Subjects more rapidly detected multisensory than unisensory events. At just 50 ms post-stimulus, neural responses to the multisensory 'whole' were greater than the summed responses from the constituent unisensory 'parts'. For all spatial configurations, this effect followed from a modulation of the strength of brain responses, rather than the activation of regions specifically responsive to multisensory pairs. Using the local auto-regressive average source estimation, we localized the initial auditory-somatosensory interactions to auditory association areas contralateral to the side of somatosensory stimulation. Thus, multisensory interactions can occur across wide peripersonal spatial separations remarkably early in sensory processing and in cortical regions traditionally considered unisensory.