New paper: Acoustic richness modulates networks involved in speech comprehension (Lee et al.)

Many functional imaging studies have investigated the brain networks responding to intelligible speech. Far fewer have looked at how the brain responds to speech that is acoustically degraded, but remains intelligible. This type of speech is particularly interesting, because as listeners we are frequently in the position of hearing unclear speech that we nevertheless understand—a situation even more common for people with hearing aids or cochlear implants. Does the brain care about acoustic clarity when speech is fully intelligible?

We address this question in our new paper now out in Hearing Research (Lee et al., 2016) in which we played short sentences for listeners they varied in both syntactic complexity and acoustic clarity (normal speech vs. 24 channel vocoded speech). We used an ISSS fMRI sequence (Schwarzbauer et al., 2006) to collect data, allowing us to present the sentences with reduced acoustic noise but still obtain relatively good temporal resolution (Peelle, 2014).

In response to syntactically complex sentences, listeners showed increased activity in large regions of left-lateralized frontoparietal cortex. This finding was expected given previous results from our group and others. In contrast, most of the increases in response based on acoustic clarity were due to the presence of more activity for the acoustically detailed, normal speech. Although this was somewhat unexpected as many studies show increased response for degraded speech relative to clear speech, we have some ideas as to what might explain our result:

  1. Studies finding degradation-related increases frequently also involve a loss of intelligibility;
  2. We indeed saw some areas of increased activity for the degraded speech, they were just smaller in size than the increases;
  3. We used noise vocoding to manipulate the acoustic clarity of the speech signal which reduced cues to the sex, age, emotion, and other characteristics of the speaker.

These results continue an interesting line of work (Obleser et al., 2011) looking at the role of acoustic detail apart from intelligibility. This ties in to prosody and other aspects of spoken communication that go beyond the identity of the words being spoken (McGettigan, 2015).

Overall, we think our finding that large portions of the brain show less activation when less information is available is not as surprising as it seems, and extraordinarily relevent for patients with hearing loss or using an assistive device.

Finally, I'm very happy that we've made the unthresholded statistical maps available on, which is a fantastic resource. Hopefully we'll see more brain imaging data deposited there (from our lab, and others!).


Lee Y-S, Min NE, Wingfield A, Grossman M, Peelle JE (2016) Acoustic richness modulates the neural networks supporting intelligible speech processing. Hearing Research 333:108-117. doi: 10.1016/j.heares.2015.12.008 (PDF)

McGettigan C (2015) The social life of voices: Studying the neural bases for the expression and perception of the self and others during spoken communication. Front Hum Neurosci 9:129. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00129

Obleser J, Meyer L, Friederici AD (2011) Dynamic assignment of neural resources in auditory comprehension of complex sentences. NeuroImage 56:2310-2320. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.03.035

Peelle JE (2014) Methodological challenges and solutions in auditory functional magnetic resonance imaging. Front Neurosci 8:253. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00253

Schwarzbauer C, Davis MH, Rodd JM, Johnsrude I (2006) Interleaved silent steady state (ISSS) imaging: A new sparse imaging method applied to auditory fMRI. NeuroImage 29:774-782. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.08.025