The mechanisms of auditory feature processing and conjunction were examined with event-related brain potential (ERP) recording in a task in which participants responded to target tones defined by the combination of location, frequency, and duration features amid distractor tones varying randomly along all feature dimensions. Attention effects were isolated as negative difference (Nd) waves by subtracting ERPs to tones with no target features from ERPs to tones with one, two, or three target features. Nd waves were seen to all tones sharing a single feature with the target, including tones sharing only target duration. Nd waves associated with the analysis of frequency and location features began at latencies of 60 msec, whereas Nd-Duration waves began at 120 msec. Nd waves to tones with single target features continued until 400+ msec, suggesting that once begun, the analysis of tone features continued exhaustively to conclusion. Nd-Frequency and Nd-Location waves had distinct scalp distributions, consistent with generation in different auditory cortical areas. Three stages of feature processing were identified: (1) Parallel feature processing (60-140 msec): Nd waves combined linearly, such that Nd-wave amplitudes following tones with two or three target features were equal to the sum of the Nd waves elicited by tones with only one target feature. (2) Conjunction-specific (CS) processing (140-220 msec): Nd amplitudes were enhanced following tones with any pair of attended features. (3) Target-specific (TS) processing (220-300 msec): Nd amplitudes were specifically enhanced to target tones with all three features. These results are consistent with a facilitatory interactive feature analysis (FIFA) model in which feature conjunction is associated with the amplified processing of individual stimulus features. Activation of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors is proposed to underlie the FIFA process.

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