A sparse neural code for some speech sounds but not for others

PLoS One. 2012;7(7):e40953. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0040953. Epub 2012 Jul 16.


The precise neural mechanisms underlying speech sound representations are still a matter of debate. Proponents of 'sparse representations' assume that on the level of speech sounds, only contrastive or otherwise not predictable information is stored in long-term memory. Here, in a passive oddball paradigm, we challenge the neural foundations of such a 'sparse' representation; we use words that differ only in their penultimate consonant ("coronal" [t] vs. "dorsal" [k] place of articulation) and for example distinguish between the German nouns Latz ([lats]; bib) and Lachs ([laks]; salmon). Changes from standard [t] to deviant [k] and vice versa elicited a discernible Mismatch Negativity (MMN) response. Crucially, however, the MMN for the deviant [lats] was stronger than the MMN for the deviant [laks]. Source localization showed this difference to be due to enhanced brain activity in right superior temporal cortex. These findings reflect a difference in phonological 'sparsity': Coronal [t] segments, but not dorsal [k] segments, are based on more sparse representations and elicit less specific neural predictions; sensory deviations from this prediction are more readily 'tolerated' and accordingly trigger weaker MMNs. The results foster the neurocomputational reality of 'representationally sparse' models of speech perception that are compatible with more general predictive mechanisms in auditory perception.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping / methods*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory / physiology
  • Female
  • Germany
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Phonetics
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Speech*