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Cereb Cortex. 2013 Mar;23(3):670-83. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs045. Epub 2012 Mar 16.

Different timescales for the neural coding of consonant and vowel sounds.

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  • 1Cognition and Neuroscience Program, School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, TX 75080, USA.


Psychophysical, clinical, and imaging evidence suggests that consonant and vowel sounds have distinct neural representations. This study tests the hypothesis that consonant and vowel sounds are represented on different timescales within the same population of neurons by comparing behavioral discrimination with neural discrimination based on activity recorded in rat inferior colliculus and primary auditory cortex. Performance on 9 vowel discrimination tasks was highly correlated with neural discrimination based on spike count and was not correlated when spike timing was preserved. In contrast, performance on 11 consonant discrimination tasks was highly correlated with neural discrimination when spike timing was preserved and not when spike timing was eliminated. These results suggest that in the early stages of auditory processing, spike count encodes vowel sounds and spike timing encodes consonant sounds. These distinct coding strategies likely contribute to the robust nature of speech sound representations and may help explain some aspects of developmental and acquired speech processing disorders.

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