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eNeuro. 2018 Feb 9;5(1). pii: ENEURO.0441-17.2018. doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0441-17.2018. eCollection 2018 Jan-Feb.

Auditory Brainstem Responses to Continuous Natural Speech in Human Listeners.

Maddox RK1,2,3, Lee AKC4,5.

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Department of Biomedical Engineering, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14627.
Department of Neuroscience, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14642.
Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY 14642.
Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195.
Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98105.


Speech is an ecologically essential signal, whose processing crucially involves the subcortical nuclei of the auditory brainstem, but there are few experimental options for studying these early responses in human listeners under natural conditions. While encoding of continuous natural speech has been successfully probed in the cortex with neurophysiological tools such as electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography, the rapidity of subcortical response components combined with unfavorable signal-to-noise ratios signal-to-noise ratio has prevented application of those methods to the brainstem. Instead, experiments have used thousands of repetitions of simple stimuli such as clicks, tone-bursts, or brief spoken syllables, with deviations from those paradigms leading to ambiguity in the neural origins of measured responses. In this study we developed and tested a new way to measure the auditory brainstem response (ABR) to ongoing, naturally uttered speech, using EEG to record from human listeners. We found a high degree of morphological similarity between the speech-derived ABRs and the standard click-evoked ABR, in particular, a preserved Wave V, the most prominent voltage peak in the standard click-evoked ABR. Because this method yields distinct peaks that recapitulate the canonical ABR, at latencies too short to originate from the cortex, the responses measured can be unambiguously determined to be subcortical in origin. The use of naturally uttered speech to measure the ABR allows the design of engaging behavioral tasks, facilitating new investigations of the potential effects of cognitive processes like language and attention on brainstem processing.


auditory brainstem response; deconvolution; electroencephalography; encoding model; speech

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