Native listeners make use of higher-level, context-driven semantic and linguistic information during the perception of speech-in-noise. In a recent behavioral study, using a new paradigm that isolated the semantic level of speech by using words, we showed that this native-language benefit is at least partly driven by semantic context (Golestani et al., 2009). Here, we used the same paradigm in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment to study the neural bases of speech intelligibility, as well as to study the neural bases of this semantic context effect in the native language. A forced-choice recognition task on the first of two auditorily presented semantically related or unrelated words was employed, where the first, 'target' word was embedded in different noise levels. Results showed that activation in components of the brain language network, including Broca's area and the left posterior superior temporal sulcus, as well as brain regions known to be functionally related to attention and task difficulty, was modulated by stimulus intelligibility. In line with several previous studies examining the role of linguistic context in the intelligibility of degraded speech at the sentence level, we found that activation in the angular gyrus of the left inferior parietal cortex was modulated by the presence of semantic context, and further, that this modulation depended on the intelligibility of the speech stimuli. Our findings help to further elucidate neural mechanisms underlying the interaction of context-driven and signal-driven factors during the perception of degraded speech, and this specifically at the semantic level.
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