Changes in neural activity associated with learning to articulate novel auditory pseudowords by covert repetition.
Rauschecker AM., Pringle A., Watkins KE.
Learning to articulate novel combinations of phonemes that form new words through a small number of auditory exposures is crucial for development of language and our capacity for fluent speech, yet the underlying neural mechanisms are largely unknown. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to reveal repetition-suppression effects accompanying such learning and reflecting discrete changes in brain activity due to stimulus-specific fine-tuning of neural representations. In an event-related design, subjects were repeatedly exposed to auditory pseudowords, which they covertly repeated. Covert responses during scanning and postscanning overt responses showed evidence of learning. An extensive set of regions activated bilaterally when listening to and covertly repeating novel pseudoword stimuli. Activity decreased, with repeated exposures, in a subset of these areas mostly in the left hemisphere, including premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, inferior frontal gyrus, superior temporal cortex, and cerebellum. The changes most likely reflect more efficient representation of the articulation patterns of these novel words in two connected systems, one involved in the perception of pseudoword stimuli (in the left superior temporal cortex) and one for processing the output of speech (in the left frontal cortex). Both of these systems contribute to vocal learning.