How humans extract the identity of speech sounds from highly variable acoustic signals remains unclear. Here, we use searchlight representational similarity analysis (RSA) to localize and characterize neural representations of syllables at different levels of the hierarchically organized temporo-frontal pathways for speech perception. We asked participants to listen to spoken syllables that differed considerably in their surface acoustic form by changing speaker and degrading surface acoustics using noise-vocoding and sine wave synthesis while we recorded neural responses with functional magnetic resonance imaging. We found evidence for a graded hierarchy of abstraction across the brain. At the peak of the hierarchy, neural representations in somatomotor cortex encoded syllable identity but not surface acoustic form, at the base of the hierarchy, primary auditory cortex showed the reverse. In contrast, bilateral temporal cortex exhibited an intermediate response, encoding both syllable identity and the surface acoustic form of speech. Regions of somatomotor cortex associated with encoding syllable identity in perception were also engaged when producing the same syllables in a separate session. These findings are consistent with a hierarchical account of how variable acoustic signals are transformed into abstract representations of the identity of speech sounds.
Keywords: fMRI; hierarchical processing; multivoxel pattern analysis; representational similarity analysis; speech perception.
© The Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press.