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Nat Commun. 2016 Aug 2;7:12241. doi: 10.1038/ncomms12241.

Increased activity in frontal motor cortex compensates impaired speech perception in older adults.

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Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6A 2E1.
Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China.
Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada M8V 2S4.


Understanding speech in noisy environments is challenging, especially for seniors. Although evidence suggests that older adults increasingly recruit prefrontal cortices to offset reduced periphery and central auditory processing, the brain mechanisms underlying such compensation remain elusive. Here we show that relative to young adults, older adults show higher activation of frontal speech motor areas as measured by functional MRI during a syllable identification task at varying signal-to-noise ratios. This increased activity correlates with improved speech discrimination performance in older adults. Multivoxel pattern classification reveals that despite an overall phoneme dedifferentiation, older adults show greater specificity of phoneme representations in frontal articulatory regions than auditory regions. Moreover, older adults with stronger frontal activity have higher phoneme specificity in frontal and auditory regions. Thus, preserved phoneme specificity and upregulation of activity in speech motor regions provide a means of compensation in older adults for decoding impoverished speech representations in adverse listening conditions.

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