New study uncovers brain's code for pronouncing vowels

August 21, 2012
Brain regions (red) containing neurons that encode vowel articulation

(Medical Xpress) -- Scientists have unraveled how our brain cells encode the pronunciation of individual vowels in speech. The discovery could lead to new technology that verbalizes the unspoken words of people paralyzed by injury or disease.

Scientists at UCLA and the Technion, Israel's Institute of Technology, have unraveled how our encode the pronunciation of individual in speech. Published in the Aug. 21 edition of Nature Communications, the discovery could lead to new technology that verbalizes the unspoken words of people paralyzed by injury or disease.

"We know that brain cells fire in a predictable way before we move our bodies," explained Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "We hypothesized that neurons would also react differently when we pronounce specific sounds. If so, we may one day be able to decode these unique patterns of activity in the brain and translate them into speech."

Fried and Technion's Ariel Tankus, formerly a in Fried's lab, followed 11 UCLA who had electrodes implanted in their brains to pinpoint the origin of their seizures. The researchers recorded neuron activity as the patients uttered one of five vowels or syllables containing the vowels.

With Technion's Shy Shoham, the team studied how the neurons encoded vowel articulation at both the single-cell and collective level. The scientists found two areas—the superior temporal gyrus and a region in the medial frontal lobe—that housed neurons related to speech and attuned to vowels. The encoding in these sites, however, unfolded very differently.

Neurons in the superior temporal gyrus responded to all vowels, although at different rates of firing. In contrast, neurons that fired exclusively for only one or two vowels were located in the medial frontal region.

"Single in the medial frontal lobe corresponded to the encoding of specific vowels," said Fried. "The neuron would fire only when a particular vowel was spoken, but not other vowels."

At the collective level, neurons' encoding of vowels in the superior temporal gyrus reflected the anatomy that made speech possible–specifically, the tongue's position inside the mouth.

"Once we understand the neuronal code underlying speech, we can work backwards from brain-cell activity to decipher speech," said Fried. "This suggests an exciting possibility for people who are physically unable to speak. In the future, we may be able to construct neuro-prosthetic devices or brain-machine interfaces that decode a person's neuronal firing patterns and enable the person to communicate."

Explore further: Researchers identify components of speech recognition pathway in humans

Related Stories

Researchers identify components of speech recognition pathway in humans

June 22, 2011
Neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) have defined, for the first time, three different processing stages that a human brain needs to identify sounds such as speech — and discovered that they ...

Recommended for you

'Selfish brain' wins out when competing with muscle power, study finds

October 20, 2017
Human brains are expensive - metabolically speaking. It takes lot of energy to run our sophisticated grey matter, and that comes at an evolutionary cost.

Researchers find shifting relationship between flexibility, modularity in the brain

October 19, 2017
A new study by Rice University researchers takes a step toward what they see as key to the advance of neuroscience: a better understanding of the relationship between the brain's flexibility and its modularity.

Brain training can improve our understanding of speech in noisy places

October 19, 2017
For many people with hearing challenges, trying to follow a conversation in a crowded restaurant or other noisy venue is a major struggle, even with hearing aids. Now researchers reporting in Current Biology on October 19th ...

Investigating the most common genetic contributor to Parkinson's disease

October 19, 2017
LRRK2 gene mutations are the most common genetic cause of Parkinson's disease (PD), but the normal physiological role of this gene in the brain remains unclear. In a paper published in Neuron, Brigham and Women's Hospital ...

Brain takes seconds to switch modes during tasks

October 19, 2017
The brain rapidly switches between operational modes in response to tasks and what is replayed can predict how well a task will be completed, according to a new UCL study in rats.

Want to control your dreams? Here's how

October 19, 2017
New research at the University of Adelaide has found that a specific combination of techniques will increase people's chances of having lucid dreams, in which the dreamer is aware they're dreaming while it's still happening ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Aug 23, 2012
"Once we understand the neuronal code underlying speech, we can work backwards from brain-cell activity to decipher speech," said Fried.


Simplfy your quest:

"Once we understand the neuronal code underlying SOUND, we can work backwards from brain-cell activity to decipher [all] LANGUAGE," said Fried.

Doesn't that sound better?

And now your suggestion:

"This suggests an exciting possibility for people who are physically unable to speak. In the future, we may be able to construct neuro-prosthetic devices or brain-machine interfaces that decode a person's neuronal firing patterns and enable the person to communicate."

Your welcome :)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.