Distributed neural representations of phonological features during speech perception

J Neurosci. 2015 Jan 14;35(2):634-42. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2454-14.2015.


A fundamental goal of the human auditory system is to map complex acoustic signals onto stable internal representations of the basic sound patterns of speech. Phonemes and the distinctive features that they comprise constitute the basic building blocks from which higher-level linguistic representations, such as words and sentences, are formed. Although the neural structures underlying phonemic representations have been well studied, there is considerable debate regarding frontal-motor cortical contributions to speech as well as the extent of lateralization of phonological representations within auditory cortex. Here we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and multivoxel pattern analysis to investigate the distributed patterns of activation that are associated with the categorical and perceptual similarity structure of 16 consonant exemplars in the English language used in Miller and Nicely's (1955) classic study of acoustic confusability. Participants performed an incidental task while listening to phonemes in the MRI scanner. Neural activity in bilateral anterior superior temporal gyrus and supratemporal plane was correlated with the first two components derived from a multidimensional scaling analysis of a behaviorally derived confusability matrix. We further showed that neural representations corresponding to the categorical features of voicing, manner of articulation, and place of articulation were widely distributed throughout bilateral primary, secondary, and association areas of the superior temporal cortex, but not motor cortex. Although classification of phonological features was generally bilateral, we found that multivariate pattern information was moderately stronger in the left compared with the right hemisphere for place but not for voicing or manner of articulation.

Keywords: auditory cortex; fMRI; motor cortex; multivoxel pattern analysis; phonological features; speech perception.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Auditory Cortex / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Phonetics
  • Speech Perception*