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J Neurosci. 2004 Oct 13;24(41):9153-60.

The role of the insular cortex in pitch pattern perception: the effect of linguistic contexts.

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Department of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712, USA.


Auditory pitch patterns are significant ecological features to which nervous systems have exquisitely adapted. Pitch patterns are found embedded in many contexts, enabling different information-processing goals. Do the psychological functions of pitch patterns determine the neural mechanisms supporting their perception, or do all pitch patterns, regardless of function, engage the same mechanisms? This issue is pursued in the present study by using 150-water positron emission tomography to study brain activations when two subject groups discriminate pitch patterns in their respective native languages, one of which is a tonal language and the other of which is not. In a tonal language, pitch patterns signal lexical meaning. Native Mandarin-speaking and English-speaking listeners discriminated pitch patterns embedded in Mandarin and English words and also passively listened to the same stimuli. When Mandarin listeners discriminated pitch embedded in Mandarin lexical tones, the left anterior insular cortex was the most active. When they discriminated pitch patterns embedded in English words, the homologous area in the right hemisphere activated as it did in English-speaking listeners discriminating pitch patterns embedded in either Mandarin or English words. These results support the view that neural responses to physical acoustic stimuli depend on the function of those stimuli and implicate anterior insular cortex in auditory processing, with the left insular cortex especially responsive to linguistic stimuli.

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