Structural Organization of the Laryngeal Motor Cortical Network and Its Implication for Evolution of Speech Production

J Neurosci. 2016 Apr 13;36(15):4170-81. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3914-15.2016.


The laryngeal motor cortex (LMC) is essential for the production of learned vocal behaviors because bilateral damage to this area renders humans unable to speak but has no apparent effect on innate vocalizations such as human laughing and crying or monkey calls. Several hypotheses have been put forward attempting to explain the evolutionary changes from monkeys to humans that potentially led to enhanced LMC functionality for finer motor control of speech production. These views, however, remain limited to the position of the larynx area within the motor cortex, as well as its connections with the phonatory brainstem regions responsible for the direct control of laryngeal muscles. Using probabilistic diffusion tractography in healthy humans and rhesus monkeys, we show that, whereas the LMC structural network is largely comparable in both species, the LMC establishes nearly 7-fold stronger connectivity with the somatosensory and inferior parietal cortices in humans than in macaques. These findings suggest that important "hard-wired" components of the human LMC network controlling the laryngeal component of speech motor output evolved from an already existing, similar network in nonhuman primates. However, the evolution of enhanced LMC-parietal connections likely allowed for more complex synchrony of higher-order sensorimotor coordination, proprioceptive and tactile feedback, and modulation of learned voice for speech production.

Significance statement: The role of the primary motor cortex in the formation of a comprehensive network controlling speech and language has been long underestimated and poorly studied. Here, we provide comparative and quantitative evidence for the significance of this region in the control of a highly learned and uniquely human behavior: speech production. From the viewpoint of structural network organization, we discuss potential evolutionary advances of enhanced temporoparietal cortical connections with the laryngeal motor cortex in humans compared with nonhuman primates that may have contributed to the development of finer vocal motor control necessary for speech production.

Keywords: diffusion imaging; laryngeal control; motor cortex; neuroanatomy; speech; white matter pathways.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain Stem / physiology
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Laryngeal Muscles / anatomy & histology
  • Laryngeal Muscles / innervation*
  • Laryngeal Muscles / physiology*
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Speech / physiology*
  • White Matter / physiology