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J Neurosci. 2013 Jul 17;33(29):12090-8. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1008-13.2013.

Vowel category boundaries enhance cortical and behavioral responses to speech feedback alterations.

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Department of Otolaryngology, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California 94143, USA.


Auditory feedback is instrumental in the online control of speech, allowing speakers to compare their self-produced speech signal with a desired auditory target and correct for errors. However, there is little account of the representation of "target" and "error": does error depend purely on acoustic distance from a target, or is error enhanced by phoneme category changes? Here, we show an effect of vowel boundaries on compensatory responses to a real-time auditory perturbation. While human subjects spoke monosyllabic words, event-triggered functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to characterize neural responses to unexpected changes in auditory feedback. Capitalizing on speakers' natural variability, we contrasted the responses to feedback perturbations applied to two classes of utterances: (1) those that fell nearer to the category boundary, for which perturbations were designed to change the phonemic identity of the heard speech; and (2) those that fell farther from the boundary, for which perturbations resulted in only sub-phonemic auditory differences. Subjects' behavioral compensation was more than three times greater when feedback shifts were applied nearer to a category boundary. Furthermore, a near-boundary shift resulted in stronger cortical responses, most notably in right posterior superior temporal gyrus, than an identical shift that occurred far from the boundary. Across participants, a correlation was found between the amount of compensation to the perturbation and the amount of activity in a network of superior temporal and inferior frontal brain regions. Together, these results demonstrate that auditory feedback control of speech is sensitive to linguistic categories learned through auditory experience.

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