Cortical activity patterns predict speech discrimination ability

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Neural activity in the cerebral cortex can explain many aspects of sensory perception. Extensive psychophysical and neurophysiological studies of visual motion and vibrotactile processing show that the firing rate of cortical neurons averaged across 50–500 ms is well correlated with discrimination ability. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that primary auditory cortex (A1) neurons use temporal precision on the order of 1–10 ms to represent speech sounds shifted into the rat hearing range. Neural discrimination was highly correlated with behavioral performance on 11 consonant-discrimination tasks when spike timing was preserved and was not correlated when spike timing was eliminated. This result suggests that spike timing contributes to the auditory cortex representation of consonant sounds.

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Figure 1: Spectrograms of each speech sound grouped by manner and place of articulation.
Figure 2: Neurograms depicting the onset response of rat A1 neurons to 20 English consonants.
Figure 3: Predictions of consonant discrimination ability based on onset response similarity.
Figure 4: Behavioral discrimination of consonant sounds.
Figure 5: Both average A1 responses and trial-by-trial neural discrimination predicted consonant discrimination ability when temporal information was maintained.
Figure 6: Predictions of consonant discrimination ability based on nearest-neighbor classifier.
Figure 7: Neural discrimination using the onset activity pattern from individual multiunit sites was best correlated with behavior.


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The authors would like to thank J. Roland, R. Jain and D. Listhrop for assistance with microelectrode mappings. We would like to thank R. Rennaker for technical assistance and training and for providing microelectrode arrays and inserter. We would also like to thank M. Perry, C. Heydrick, A. McMenamy, A. Meepe, C. Dablain, J. Choi, V. Badhiwala, J. Riley, N. Hatate, P. Kan, M. Lazo de la Vega and A. Hudson for help with behavioral training. We would also like to thank S. Blumstein, Y. Cohen, H. Read, S. Denham, L. Miller, S. Edelman, V. Dragoi, H. Abdi, P. Assmann, X. Wang and R. Romo for their suggestions about earlier versions of the manuscript. This work was supported by grants from the US National Institute for Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders and the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

Author information

C.T.E., C.A.P., R.S.C. and A.C.R. collected behavioral training data. C.T.E., C.A.P., Y.H.C., R.S.C., V.J. and K.Q.C. recorded anesthetized cortical responses. J.A.S. recorded awake cortical responses. M.P.K. and C.T.E. wrote the manuscript and performed data analysis. All authors discussed the paper and commented on the manuscript.

Correspondence to Crystal T Engineer or Michael P Kilgard.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Text and Figures

Supplementary Figures 1–8, Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Data (PDF 1110 kb)

Supplementary Video 1

A1 spatiotemporal activity evoked by consonant onset. The video illustrates the spatiotemporal activity patterns evoked in primary auditory cortex by the onset of twenty different consonant sounds. The color of each polygon indicates the multi-unit activity at each of 63 recording sites in a single rat. The map of characteristic frequency (CF) illustrates the topographic organization of tone frequency tuning. The blue lines under each activity map indicate the average firing rate for all 63 A1 sites. The red lines mark the time at which each spatial activity pattern occurs relative to response onset. (MPG 2459 kb)

Supplementary Video 2

A1 spatiotemporal activity evoked by consonant-vowel syllables. The video illustrates the spatiotemporal activity patterns evoked in primary auditory cortex by words beginning with twenty different consonant sounds followed by /a/ as in 'sad'. The color of each polygon indicates the multi-unit activity at each of 63 recording sites in a single rat. The map of characteristic frequency (CF) illustrates the topographic organization of tone frequency tuning. The blue lines under each activity map indicate the average firing rate for all 63 A1 sites. The red lines mark the time at which each spatial activity pattern occurs relative to response onset. (MPG 4245 kb)

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