Correctly understood speech in difficult listening conditions is often difficult to remember. A long-standing hypothesis for this observation is that the engagement of cognitive resources to aid speech understanding can limit resources available for memory encoding. This hypothesis is consistent with evidence that speech presented in difficult conditions typically elicits greater activity throughout cingulo-opercular regions of frontal cortex that are proposed to optimize task performance through adaptive control of behavior and tonic attention. However, successful memory encoding of items for delayed recognition memory tasks is consistently associated with increased cingulo-opercular activity when perceptual difficulty is minimized. The current study used a delayed recognition memory task to test competing predictions that memory encoding for words is enhanced or limited by the engagement of cingulo-opercular activity during challenging listening conditions. An fMRI experiment was conducted with twenty healthy adult participants who performed a word identification in noise task that was immediately followed by a delayed recognition memory task. Consistent with previous findings, word identification trials in the poorer signal-to-noise ratio condition were associated with increased cingulo-opercular activity and poorer recognition memory scores on average. However, cingulo-opercular activity decreased for correctly identified words in noise that were not recognized in the delayed memory test. These results suggest that memory encoding in difficult listening conditions is poorer when elevated cingulo-opercular activity is not sustained. Although increased attention to speech when presented in difficult conditions may detract from more active forms of memory maintenance (e.g., sub-vocal rehearsal), we conclude that task performance monitoring and/or elevated tonic attention supports incidental memory encoding in challenging listening conditions.
Keywords: Attention; Delayed recognition memory; Frontal lobe; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Incidental memory encoding; Speech recognition in noise.
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