Spontaneous synchronization to speech reveals neural mechanisms facilitating language learning

Nat Neurosci. 2019 Apr;22(4):627-632. doi: 10.1038/s41593-019-0353-z. Epub 2019 Mar 4.


We introduce a deceptively simple behavioral task that robustly identifies two qualitatively different groups within the general population. When presented with an isochronous train of random syllables, some listeners are compelled to align their own concurrent syllable production with the perceived rate, whereas others remain impervious to the external rhythm. Using both neurophysiological and structural imaging approaches, we show group differences with clear consequences for speech processing and language learning. When listening passively to speech, high synchronizers show increased brain-to-stimulus synchronization over frontal areas, and this localized pattern correlates with precise microstructural differences in the white matter pathways connecting frontal to auditory regions. Finally, the data expose a mechanism that underpins performance on an ecologically relevant word-learning task. We suggest that this task will help to better understand and characterize individual performance in speech processing and language learning.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Language*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Speech*