Comprehending speech can be particularly challenging in a noisy environment and in the absence of semantic context. It has been proposed that the articulatory motor system would be recruited especially in difficult listening conditions. However, it remains unknown how signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and semantic context affect the recruitment of the articulatory motor system when listening to continuous speech. The aim of the present study was to address the hypothesis that involvement of the articulatory motor cortex increases when the intelligibility and clarity of the spoken sentences decreases, because of noise and the lack of semantic context. We applied Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to the lip and hand representations in the primary motor cortex and measured motor evoked potentials from the lip and hand muscles, respectively, to evaluate motor excitability when young adults listened to sentences. In Experiment 1, we found that the excitability of the lip motor cortex was facilitated during listening to both semantically anomalous and coherent sentences in noise relative to non-speech baselines, but neither SNR nor semantic context modulated the facilitation. In Experiment 2, we replicated these findings and found no difference in the excitability of the lip motor cortex between sentences in noise and clear sentences without noise. Thus, our results show that the articulatory motor cortex is involved in speech processing even in optimal and ecologically valid listening conditions and that its involvement is not modulated by the intelligibility and clarity of speech.
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Articulatory motor cortex, Semantic context, Speech in noise, Speech perception, Transcranial magnetic stimulation