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Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(14):1899-911.

The irrelevant speech effect: a PET study.

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Department of Clinical Neuroscience N-8, Cognitive Neurophysiology, MR-Research Centre, Karolinska Institute, Karolinska Hospital, 171 76, Stockholm, Sweden.


Positron emission tomography (PET) was performed in normal volunteers during a serial recall task under the influence of irrelevant speech comprising both single item repetition and multi-item sequences. An interaction approach was used to identify brain areas specifically related to the irrelevant speech effect. We interpreted activations as compensatory recruitment of complementary working memory processing, and decreased activity in terms of suppression of task relevant areas invoked by the irrelevant speech. The interaction between the distractors and working memory revealed a significant effect in the left, and to a lesser extent in the right, superior temporal region, indicating that initial phonological processing was relatively suppressed. Additional areas of decreased activity were observed in an a priori defined cortical network related to verbal working memory, incorporating the bilateral superior temporal and inferior/middle frontal cortices extending into Broca's area on the left. We also observed a weak activation in the left inferior parietal cortex, a region suggested to reflect the phonological store, the subcomponent where the interference is assumed to take place. The results suggest that the irrelevant speech effect is correlated with and thus tentatively may be explained in terms of a suppression of components of the verbal working memory network as outlined. The results can be interpreted in terms of inhibitory top-down attentional mechanisms attenuating the influence of the irrelevant speech, although additional studies are clearly necessary to more fully characterize the nature of this phenomenon and its theoretical implications for existing short-term memory models.

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