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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


Mandarin Chinese speech recognition by pediatric cochlear implant users

Consistent with previous studies’ findings, early implantation provided a significant advantage for profoundly deaf children. Performance for both groups was generally quite good for the relatively difficult materials and tasks, suggesting that open-set word and sentence recognition may be useful in evaluating speech performance with older pediatric CI users. Differences in disyllable recognition between Groups 1 and 2 may reflect differences in adaptation to electric stimulation. The Group 1 subjects developed speech patterns exclusively via electric stimulation, while the Group 2 subjects adapted to electric stimulation relative to previous acoustic patterns.

from the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology

More vulnerable processing of shengmu than yunmu in a Chinese Broca’s aphasic

Previous neuropsychological studies on European languages have provided evidence for separable processing of consonants and vowels. In this study, we present the case of a Chinese speaker with classical Broca’s aphasia following a vascular lesion in the left inferior frontal gyrus. In the task of reading aloud Chinese characters and phrases, she made more errors on shengmu (initial consonant phoneme of a Chinese syllable), at a rate of approximately 2:1, than yunmu (final phoneme(s) of a Chinese syllable). There are two types of yunmu: only vowel(s) and vowel(s) and consonant(s) together. A further test revealed that the speaker showed no significant difference in her error rates for the two types of yunmu. We consider more vulnerable processing of shengmu than yunmu in the Chinese Broca’s aphasic. Likewise, this case as a model of focal brain damage provides evidence for the role of Broca’s area in the processing of speech production based on the patient’s poor articulation but relatively preserved comprehension, phonemic discrimination and auditory word recognition. We claim that Broca’s area is crucial for articulation of shengmu which need complex articulatory movements.

from the Journal of Neurolinguistics

Language-dependent pitch encoding advantage in the brainstem is not limited to acceleration rates that occur in natural speech

Experience-dependent enhancement of neural encoding of pitch in the auditory brainstem has been observed for only specific portions of native pitch contours exhibiting high rates of pitch acceleration, irrespective of speech or nonspeech contexts. This experiment allows us to determine whether this language-dependent advantage transfers to acceleration rates that extend beyond the pitch range of natural speech. Brainstem frequency-following responses (FFRs) were recorded from Chinese and English participants in response to four, 250-ms dynamic click-train stimuli with different rates of pitch acceleration. The maximum pitch acceleration rates in a given stimulus ranged from low (0.3 Hz/ms; Mandarin Tone 2) to high (2.7 Hz/ms; 2 octaves). Pitch strength measurements were computed from the FFRs using autocorrelation algorithms with an analysis window centered at the point of maximum pitch acceleration in each stimulus. Between-group comparisons of pitch strength revealed that Chinese exhibit more robust pitch representation than English across all four acceleration rates. Regardless of language group, pitch strength was greater in response to acceleration rates within or proximal to natural speech relative to those beyond its range. Though both groups showed decreasing pitch strength with increasing acceleration rates, pitch representations of the Chinese group were more resistant to degradation. FFR spectral data were complementary across acceleration rates. These findings demonstrate that perceptually salient pitch cues associated with lexical tone influence brainstem pitch extraction not only in the speech domain, but also in auditory signals that clearly fall outside the range of dynamic pitch that a native listener is exposed to.

from Brain and Language

The role of the auditory brainstem in processing linguistically-relevant pitch patterns

Historically, the brainstem has been neglected as a part of the brain involved in language processing. We review recent evidence of language-dependent effects in pitch processing based on comparisons of native vs. nonnative speakers of a tonal language from electrophysiological recordings in the auditory brainstem. We argue that there is enhancing of linguistically-relevant pitch dimensions or features well before the auditory signal reaches the cerebral cortex. We propose that long-term experience with a tone language sharpens the tuning characteristics of neurons along the pitch axis with enhanced sensitivity to linguistically-relevant, rapidly changing sections of pitch contours. Though not specific to a speech context, experience-dependent brainstem mechanisms for pitch representation are clearly sensitive to particular aspects of pitch contours that native speakers of a tone language have been exposed to. Such experience-dependent effects on lower-level sensory processing are compatible with more integrated, hierarchically organized pathways to language and the brain.


from Brain and Language