A growing body of research suggests that intrinsic neuronal slow (<10 Hz) oscillations in auditory cortex appear to track incoming speech and other spectro-temporally complex auditory signals. Within this framework, several recent studies have identified critical-band temporal envelopes as the specific acoustic feature being reflected by the phase of these oscillations. However, how this alignment between speech acoustics and neural oscillations might underpin intelligibility is unclear. Here we test the hypothesis that the 'sharpness' of temporal fluctuations in the critical band envelope acts as a temporal cue to speech syllabic rate, driving delta-theta rhythms to track the stimulus and facilitate intelligibility. We interpret our findings as evidence that sharp events in the stimulus cause cortical rhythms to re-align and parse the stimulus into syllable-sized chunks for further decoding. Using magnetoencephalographic recordings, we show that by removing temporal fluctuations that occur at the syllabic rate, envelope-tracking activity is reduced. By artificially reinstating these temporal fluctuations, envelope-tracking activity is regained. These changes in tracking correlate with intelligibility of the stimulus. Together, the results suggest that the sharpness of fluctuations in the stimulus, as reflected in the cochlear output, drive oscillatory activity to track and entrain to the stimulus, at its syllabic rate. This process likely facilitates parsing of the stimulus into meaningful chunks appropriate for subsequent decoding, enhancing perception and intelligibility.
Keywords: Acoustic edge; Auditory cortex; CACoh; CALM; MEG; Neural oscillation; Perceptual parsing; Speech; categorization and learning module; cerebro-acoustic coherence; magnetoencephalography.
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