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Functional ear (a)symmetry in brainstem neural activity relevant to encoding of voice pitch: A precursor for hemispheric specialization?

Pitch processing is lateralized to the right hemisphere; linguistic pitch is further mediated by left cortical areas. This experiment investigates whether ear asymmetries vary in brainstem representation of pitch depending on linguistic status. Brainstem frequency-following responses (FFRs) were elicited by monaural stimulation of the left and right ear of 15 native speakers of Mandarin Chinese using two synthetic speech stimuli that differ in linguistic status of tone. One represented a native lexical tone (Tone 2: T2); the other, T2′, a nonnative variant in which the pitch contour was a mirror image of T2 with the same starting and ending frequencies. Two 40-ms portions of f0 contours were selected in order to compare two regions (R1, early; R2 late) differing in pitch acceleration rate and perceptual saliency. In R2, linguistic status effects revealed that T2 exhibited a larger degree of FFR rightward ear asymmetry as reflected in f0 amplitude relative to T2′. Relative to midline (ear asymmetry = 0), the only ear asymmetry reaching significance was that favoring left ear stimulation elicited by T2′. By left- and right-ear stimulation separately, FFRs elicited by T2 were larger than T2′ in the right ear only. Within T2′, FFRs elicited by the earlier region were larger than the later in both ears. Within T2, no significant differences in FFRS were observed between regions in either ear. Collectively, these findings support the idea that origins of cortical processing preferences for perceptually-salient portions of pitch are rooted in early, preattentive stages of processing in the brainstem.

from Brain and Language

Brainstem pitch representation in native speakers of Mandarin is less susceptible to degradation of stimulus temporal regularity

It has been demonstrated that neural encoding of pitch in the auditory brainstem is shaped by long-term experience with language. To date, however, all stimuli have exhibited a high degree of pitch saliency. The experimental design herein permits us to determine whether experience-dependent pitch representation in the brainstem is less susceptible to progressive degradation of the temporal regularity of iterated rippled noise (IRN). Brainstem responses were recorded from Chinese and English participants in response to IRN homologues of Mandarin Tone 2 (T2IRN). Six different iterations steps were utilized to systematically vary the degree of temporal regularity in the fine structure of the IRN stimuli in order to produce a pitch salience continuum ranging from low to high. Pitch-tracking accuracy and pitch strength were computed from the brainstem responses using autocorrelation algorithms. Analysis of variance of brainstem responses to T2IRN revealed that pitch-tracking accuracy is higher in the native tone language group (Chinese) relative to the non-tone language group (English) except for the three lowest steps along the continuum, and moreover, that pitch strength is greater in the Chinese group even in severely degraded stimuli for two of the six 40-ms sections of T2IRN that exhibit rapid changes in pitch. For these same two sections, exponential time constants for the stimulus continuum revealed that pitch strength emerges 2-3 times faster in the tone language than in the non-tone language group as a function of increasing pitch salience. These findings altogether suggest that experience-dependent brainstem mechanisms for pitch are especially sensitive to those dimensions of tonal contours that provide cues of high perceptual saliency in degraded as well as normal listening conditions.

from Brain Research