Background: Individuals with communication disorders, such as aphasia, exhibit weak auditory cortex responses to speech sounds and language impairments. Previous studies have demonstrated that pairing vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) with tones or tone trains can enhance both the spectral and temporal processing of sounds in auditory cortex, and can be used to reverse pathological primary auditory cortex (A1) plasticity in a rodent model of chronic tinnitus.
Objective/hypothesis: We predicted that pairing VNS with speech sounds would strengthen the A1 response to the paired speech sounds.
Methods: The speech sounds 'rad' and 'lad' were paired with VNS three hundred times per day for twenty days. A1 responses to both paired and novel speech sounds were recorded 24 h after the last VNS pairing session in anesthetized rats. Response strength, latency and neurometric decoding were compared between VNS speech paired and control rats.
Results: Our results show that VNS paired with speech sounds strengthened the auditory cortex response to the paired sounds, but did not strengthen the amplitude of the response to novel speech sounds. Responses to the paired sounds were faster and less variable in VNS speech paired rats compared to control rats. Neural plasticity that was specific to the frequency, intensity, and temporal characteristics of the paired speech sounds resulted in enhanced neural detection.
Conclusion: VNS speech sound pairing provides a novel method to enhance speech sound processing in the central auditory system. Delivery of VNS during speech therapy could improve outcomes in individuals with receptive language deficits.
Keywords: Plasticity; Primary auditory cortex; Speech; Vagal nerve stimulation.
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