The role of the auditory brainstem in processing linguistically-relevant pitch patterns

Brain Lang. 2009 Sep;110(3):135-48. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2009.03.005. Epub 2009 Apr 14.


Historically, the brainstem has been neglected as a part of the brain involved in language processing. We review recent evidence of language-dependent effects in pitch processing based on comparisons of native vs. nonnative speakers of a tonal language from electrophysiological recordings in the auditory brainstem. We argue that there is enhancing of linguistically-relevant pitch dimensions or features well before the auditory signal reaches the cerebral cortex. We propose that long-term experience with a tone language sharpens the tuning characteristics of neurons along the pitch axis with enhanced sensitivity to linguistically-relevant, rapidly changing sections of pitch contours. Though not specific to a speech context, experience-dependent brainstem mechanisms for pitch representation are clearly sensitive to particular aspects of pitch contours that native speakers of a tone language have been exposed to. Such experience-dependent effects on lower-level sensory processing are compatible with more integrated, hierarchically organized pathways to language and the brain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Linguistics*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Pitch Perception / physiology*