Spectral vs. temporal auditory processing in specific language impairment: A developmental ERP study
Pre-linguistic sensory deficits, especially in “temporal” processing, have been implicated in developmental language impairment (LI). However, recent evidence has been equivocal with data suggesting problems in the spectral domain. The present study examined event-related potential (ERP) measures of auditory sensory temporal and spectral processing, and their interaction, in typical children and those with LI (7–17 years; n = 25 per group). The stimuli were three CV syllables and three consonant-to-vowel transitions (spectral sweeps) isolated from the syllables. Each of these six stimuli appeared in three durations (transitions: 20, 50, and 80 ms; syllables: 120, 150, and 180 ms). Behaviorally, the group with LIs showed inferior syllable discrimination both with long and short stimuli. In ERPs, trends were observed in the group with LI for diminished long-latency negativities (the N2–N4 peaks) and a developmentally transient enhancement of the P2 peak. Some, but not all, ERP indices of spectral processing also showed trends to be diminished in the group with LI specifically in responses to syllables. Importantly, measures of the transition N2–N4 peaks correlated with expressive language abilities in the LI children. None of the group differences depended on stimulus duration. Therefore, sound brevity did not account for the diminished spectral resolution in these LI children. Rather, the results suggest a deficit in acoustic feature integration at higher levels of auditory sensory processing. The observed maturational trajectory suggests a non-linear developmental deviance rather than simple delay.