Functional changes in inter- and intra-hemispheric cortical processing underlying degraded speech perception


Previous studies suggest that at poorer signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs), auditory cortical event-related potentials are weakened, prolonged, and show a shift in the functional lateralization of cerebral processing from left to right hemisphere. Increased right hemisphere involvement during speech-in-noise (SIN) processing may reflect the recruitment of additional brain resources to aid speech recognition or alternatively, the progressive loss of involvement from left linguistic brain areas as speech becomes more impoverished (i.e., nonspeech-like). To better elucidate the brain basis of SIN perception, we recorded neuroelectric activity in normal hearing listeners to speech sounds presented at various SNRs. Behaviorally, listeners obtained superior SIN performance for speech presented to the right compared to the left ear (i.e., right ear advantage). Source analysis of neural data assessed the relative contribution of region-specific neural generators (linguistic and auditory brain areas) to SIN processing. We found that left inferior frontal brain areas (e.g., Broca's areas) partially disengage at poorer SNRs but responses do not right lateralize with increasing noise. In contrast, auditory sources showed more resilience to noise in left compared to right primary auditory cortex but also a progressive shift in dominance from left to right hemisphere at lower SNRs. Region- and ear-specific correlations revealed that listeners' right ear SIN advantage was predicted by source activity emitted from inferior frontal gyrus (but not primary auditory cortex). Our findings demonstrate changes in the functional asymmetry of cortical speech processing during adverse acoustic conditions and suggest that "cocktail party" listening skills depend on the quality of speech representations in the left cerebral hemisphere rather than compensatory recruitment of right hemisphere mechanisms.

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