Functional organization of human sensorimotor cortex for speech articulation

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Speaking is one of the most complex actions that we perform, but nearly all of us learn to do it effortlessly. Production of fluent speech requires the precise, coordinated movement of multiple articulators (for example, the lips, jaw, tongue and larynx) over rapid time scales. Here we used high-resolution, multi-electrode cortical recordings during the production of consonant-vowel syllables to determine the organization of speech sensorimotor cortex in humans. We found speech-articulator representations that are arranged somatotopically on ventral pre- and post-central gyri, and that partially overlap at individual electrodes. These representations were coordinated temporally as sequences during syllable production. Spatial patterns of cortical activity showed an emergent, population-level representation, which was organized by phonetic features. Over tens of milliseconds, the spatial patterns transitioned between distinct representations for different consonants and vowels. These results reveal the dynamic organization of speech sensorimotor cortex during the generation of multi-articulator movements that underlies our ability to speak.

At a glance


  1. vSMC physiology during syllable production.
    Figure 1: vSMC physiology during syllable production.

    a, Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) reconstruction of a single subject brain with vSMC electrodes (dots), coloured according to distance from the Sylvian fissure (black and red are the most dorsal and ventral positions, respectively). b, Expanded view of vSMC anatomy. cs, central sulcus; PoCG, post-central gyrus; PrCG, pre-central gyrus; Sf, Sylvian fissure. Scale bars,1cm. c–e, Top, vocal tract schematics for three consonants (/b/, /d/, /g/), produced by occlusion at the lips, tongue tip and tongue body, respectively (red arrow). Middle, spectrograms of spoken consonant-vowel syllables. Bottom, average cortical activity from a subset of electrodes (electrode number on far right, same colouring as in a). Vertical dashed line, acoustic onset of consonant-vowel transition. f–h, Cortical activity at selected electrodes for different phonetic contrasts (mean±s.e.m.). Acoustic waveforms are displayed above. f, Fricatives (/θ/(‘th’ of ‘thin’), /s/, /∫/(‘sh’ of ‘shin’)) with different constriction locations. g, Front tongue consonants (/l/, /n/, /d/) with different constriction degree or shapes. h, Single consonant (/j/ (‘y’ of ‘yes’)) with different vowels (/a/, /i/, /u/). Purple arrows correspond to a tongue electrode with prolonged activity for /i/ and /u/ vowels. Black arrow corresponds to an active lip electrode for /u/.

  2. Spatial representation of articulators.
    Figure 2: Spatial representation of articulators.

    a, Localization of lips, jaw, tongue and larynx representations. Average magnitude of articulator weightings (colour scale) plotted as a function of anteroposterior (AP) distance from the central sulcus and dorsoventral (DV) distance from the Sylvian fissure (n = 3 subjects). b, Functional somatotopic organization of speech-articulator representations in vSMC. Lips (L, red); jaw (J, green); tongue (T, blue); larynx (X, black); mixed (yellow). Letters correspond to locations, based on direct measurement-derived regression weights; shaded rectangles correspond to regions classified by k-nearest neighbour.

  3. Temporal representation of articulators.
    Figure 3: Temporal representation of articulators.

    a, b, Timing of correlations between cortical activity and consonant (a) and vowel (b) articulator features. Colour maps display correlation coefficients (R) for a subset of electrodes. c, Acoustic landmarks. Onset (end of arrows, left), peak power (shown by a dot in each case) and offset (end of arrows, right) for consonant-vowel syllables (mean±s.e.m., n = 168 syllables, all subjects). Error bars are smaller than the symbols. d, Temporal sequence and range of correlations. Symbols are as in c. Data are mean (symbols)±s.e.m. (thick solid line) across electrodes from all subjects.

  4. Phonetic organization of spatial patterns.
    Figure 4: Phonetic organization of spatial patterns.

    a, b, Scatterplots of consonant-vowel syllables in the first three principal components for consonants (25ms before consonant-vowel transition) (a) and vowels (250ms after consonant-vowel transition) (b). A subset of consonant-vowels are labelled with international phonetic alphabet (IPA) symbols, all others have dots. Colouring denotes k-means cluster membership. c, d, Hierarchical clustering of cortical state-space at consonant (25 ms before consonant-vowel transition) and vowel time points (250 ms after consonant-vowel transition). Individual syllables and dendrogram branches are colour-coded and labelled by known linguistic categories using the same colour scheme as in Fig 4 a, b, with new subdivisions of the coronal tongue into front tongue and sibilant (in green and red, respectively). Lat, lateral; N. stop, nasal stop; O. stop, oral stop. e, f, Correlations between cortical state-space and phonetic features. Black vertical lines, medians; grey boxes, 25th and 75th percentiles. ***P<10−10, WSRT; n = 297 for both consonants and vowels. NS, not significant.

  5. Dynamics of phonetic representations.
    Figure 5: Dynamics of phonetic representations.

    a, b, Cortical state-space trajectories. a, Consonants transitioning to the vowel /u/. Each line corresponds to a single consonant-vowel trajectory. For each line, the left triangle indicates t = −500ms, the square indicates t = −25ms, the circle indicates t = 250ms, and the right triangle indicates t = 750ms. b, Trajectories of the labial consonants transitioning to /a/, /i/ and /u/. c, d, Across-subject averages of cluster separability (c) and correlation between cortical state-space structure and phonetic features (d) for consonants and vowels (mean±s.e.m.). e, Time-course of consonant-vowel syllable trajectories for one subject. Each colour corresponds to one of the consonant or vowel groups (colours are the same as in a and b above). The centre of each coloured tube is located at the centroid of the corresponding phonetic cluster. Tube diameter corresponds to cluster density and colour saturation represents the correlation between the structure of the cortical state-space and phonetic features.


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Author information


  1. Department of Neurological Surgery and Department of Physiology, University of California, San Francisco, 505 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, California 94143, USA

    • Kristofer E. Bouchard,
    • Nima Mesgarani &
    • Edward F. Chang
  2. Center for Integrative Neuroscience, 675 Nelson Rising Lane, University of California, San Francisco, California 94158, USA

    • Kristofer E. Bouchard,
    • Nima Mesgarani &
    • Edward F. Chang
  3. Department of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley, 1203 Dwinelle Hall, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Keith Johnson
  4. UCSF Epilepsy Center, University of California, San Francisco, 400 Parnassus Avenue, San Francisco, California 94143, USA

    • Edward F. Chang


E.F.C. conceived and collected the data for this project. K.E.B. designed and implemented the analysis with assistance from E.F.C. N.M. assisted with preliminary analysis. K.E.B. and E.F.C. wrote the manuscript. K.J. provided phonetic consultation on experimental design and interpretation of results. E.F.C. supervised the project.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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