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Cortical activity patterns predict robust speech discrimination ability in noise


M. P. Kilgard, as above.


The neural mechanisms that support speech discrimination in noisy conditions are poorly understood. In quiet conditions, spike timing information appears to be used in the discrimination of speech sounds. In this study, we evaluated the hypothesis that spike timing is also used to distinguish between speech sounds in noisy conditions that significantly degrade neural responses to speech sounds. We tested speech sound discrimination in rats and recorded primary auditory cortex (A1) responses to speech sounds in background noise of different intensities and spectral compositions. Our behavioral results indicate that rats, like humans, are able to accurately discriminate consonant sounds even in the presence of background noise that is as loud as the speech signal. Our neural recordings confirm that speech sounds evoke degraded but detectable responses in noise. Finally, we developed a novel neural classifier that mimics behavioral discrimination. The classifier discriminates between speech sounds by comparing the A1 spatiotemporal activity patterns evoked on single trials with the average spatiotemporal patterns evoked by known sounds. Unlike classifiers in most previous studies, this classifier is not provided with the stimulus onset time. Neural activity analyzed with the use of relative spike timing was well correlated with behavioral speech discrimination in quiet and in noise. Spike timing information integrated over longer intervals was required to accurately predict rat behavioral speech discrimination in noisy conditions. The similarity of neural and behavioral discrimination of speech in noise suggests that humans and rats may employ similar brain mechanisms to solve this problem.