Auditory cortex is susceptible to lexical influence as revealed by informational vs. energetic masking of speech categorization


Speech perception requires the grouping of acoustic information into meaningful phonetic units via the process of categorical perception (CP). Environmental masking influences speech perception and CP. However, it remains unclear at which stage of processing (encoding, decision, or both) masking affects listeners’ categorization of speech signals. The purpose of this study was to determine whether linguistic interference influences the early acoustic–phonetic conversion process inherent to CP. To this end, we measured source level, event related brain potentials (ERPs) from auditory cortex (AC) and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) as listeners rapidly categorized speech sounds along a /da/ to /ga/ continuum presented in three listening conditions: quiet, and in the presence of forward (informational masker) and time-reversed (energetic masker) 2-talker babble noise. Maskers were matched in overall SNR and spectral content and thus varied only in their degree of linguistic interference (i.e., informational masking). We hypothesized a differential effect of informational versus energetic masking on behavioral and neural categorization responses, where we predicted increased activation of frontal regions when disambiguating speech from noise, especially during lexical-informational maskers. We found (1) informational masking weakens behavioral speech phoneme identification above and beyond energetic masking; (2) low-level AC activity not only codes speech categories but is susceptible to higher-order lexical interference; (3) identifying speech amidst noise recruits a cross hemispheric circuit (ACleft → IFGright) whose engagement varies according to task difficulty. These findings provide corroborating evidence for top-down influences on the early acoustic–phonetic analysis of speech through a coordinated interplay between frontotemporal brain areas.

Publication Title

Brain Research