Dynamic Encoding of Acoustic Features in Neural Responses to Continuous Speech

J Neurosci. 2017 Feb 22;37(8):2176-2185. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2383-16.2017. Epub 2017 Jan 24.


Humans are unique in their ability to communicate using spoken language. However, it remains unclear how the speech signal is transformed and represented in the brain at different stages of the auditory pathway. In this study, we characterized electroencephalography responses to continuous speech by obtaining the time-locked responses to phoneme instances (phoneme-related potential). We showed that responses to different phoneme categories are organized by phonetic features. We found that each instance of a phoneme in continuous speech produces multiple distinguishable neural responses occurring as early as 50 ms and as late as 400 ms after the phoneme onset. Comparing the patterns of phoneme similarity in the neural responses and the acoustic signals confirms a repetitive appearance of acoustic distinctions of phonemes in the neural data. Analysis of the phonetic and speaker information in neural activations revealed that different time intervals jointly encode the acoustic similarity of both phonetic and speaker categories. These findings provide evidence for a dynamic neural transformation of low-level speech features as they propagate along the auditory pathway, and form an empirical framework to study the representational changes in learning, attention, and speech disorders.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT We characterized the properties of evoked neural responses to phoneme instances in continuous speech. We show that each instance of a phoneme in continuous speech produces several observable neural responses at different times occurring as early as 50 ms and as late as 400 ms after the phoneme onset. Each temporal event explicitly encodes the acoustic similarity of phonemes, and linguistic and nonlinguistic information are best represented at different time intervals. Finally, we show a joint encoding of phonetic and speaker information, where the neural representation of speakers is dependent on phoneme category. These findings provide compelling new evidence for dynamic processing of speech sounds in the auditory pathway.

Keywords: EEG; event-related potential; phonemes; speech.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Acoustics
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials, Auditory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Phonetics*
  • Reaction Time
  • Speech / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Time Factors