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In physiology, tonotopy (from Greek tono- and topos = place) is the spatial arrangement of where sounds of different frequency are processed in the brain. Tones close to each other in terms of frequency are represented in topologically neighbouring regions in the brain. Tonotopic maps are a particular case of topographic organization, similar to retinotopy in the visual system.

Tonotopy in the auditory system begins at the cochlea, the small snail-like structure in the inner ear that sends information about sound to the brain. Different regions of the basilar membrane in the organ of Corti, the sound-sensitive portion of the cochlea, vibrate at different sinusoidal frequencies due to variations in thickness and width along the length of the membrane. Nerves that transmit information from different regions of the basilar membrane therefore encode frequency tonotopically. This tonotopy then projects through the vestibulocochlear nerve and associated midbrain structures to the primary auditory cortex via the auditory radiation pathway. Throughout this radiation, organization is linear with relation to placement on the organ of Corti, in accordance to the best frequency response (that is, the frequency at which that neuron is most sensitive) of each neuron. However, binaural fusion in the superior oliviary complex onward adds significant amounts of information encoded in the signal strength of each ganglion. Thus, the number of tonotopic maps varies between species and the degree of binaural synthesis and separation of sound intensities; in humans, six tonotopic maps have been identified in the primary auditory cortex.[1] These maps can be generalized by their anatomical locations along the auditory cortex.

  • sounds of low pitch project into the anterolateral aspect of Heschl's gyrus
  • sounds of high pitch project deeply into the lateral fissure (which houses Heschl's gyrus

A tonotopic map is a topographical map of the basilar membrane in the auditory cortex on Heschl's gyrus.

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