Speech perception at birth: The brain encodes fast and slow temporal information

Sci Adv. 2020 Jul 22;6(30):eaba7830. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aba7830. eCollection 2020 Jul.


Speech perception is constrained by auditory processing. Although at birth infants have an immature auditory system and limited language experience, they show remarkable speech perception skills. To assess neonates' ability to process the complex acoustic cues of speech, we combined near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain responses to syllables differing in consonants. The syllables were presented in three conditions preserving (i) original temporal modulations of speech [both amplitude modulation (AM) and frequency modulation (FM)], (ii) both fast and slow AM, but not FM, or (iii) only the slowest AM (<8 Hz). EEG responses indicate that neonates can encode consonants in all conditions, even without the fast temporal modulations, similarly to adults. Yet, the fast and slow AM activate different neural areas, as shown by NIRS. Thus, the immature human brain is already able to decompose the acoustic components of speech, laying the foundations of language learning.