Dynamic and task-dependent encoding of speech and voice in the auditory cortex
Speech is at the core of verbal communication and social interaction. It conveys linguistic content and speaker-specific vocal information that listeners exploit for identification. Cortical processing of speech relies on the formation of abstract representations that are invariant to highly variable acoustic input signals and critically depends on behavioral demands. In a series of EEG and fMRI studies we have recently investigated temporal as well as spatial neural coding mechanisms for forming such abstract representations. We focused on categorical and task-dependent neuronal responses to natural speech sounds (vowels /a/, /i/, /u/) spoken by different speakers. Brain activity was measured during passive listening (fMRI, EEG) and during performance of behavioural tasks on vowel or speaker identity (EEG). Our EEG results show that dynamic changes of sound- evoked responses and phase patterns of cortical oscillations in the alpha band (8-12 Hz) closely reflect the abstraction and analysis of the sounds along the task-relevant dimension. Our fMRI results show that spatially distributed activation patterns in early and higher level auditory cortex encode vowel-invariant representations of speaker identity and speaker- invariant representations of vowel identity. Both the transient and task- dependent realignment of neuronal responses (EEG) and the spatially distributed cortical fingerprints (fMRI) provide robust cortical coding mechanisms for forming abstract representations of auditory (speech) signals.
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