Date: 02 May 2012

Neural Mechanisms Supporting Robust Discrimination of Spectrally and Temporally Degraded Speech

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Abstract

Cochlear implants provide good speech discrimination ability despite highly limited amount of information they transmit compared with normal cochlea. Noise vocoded speech, simulating cochlear implants in normal hearing listeners, have demonstrated that spectrally and temporally degraded speech contains sufficient cues to provide accurate speech discrimination. We hypothesized that neural activity patterns generated in the primary auditory cortex by spectrally and temporally degraded speech sounds will account for the robust behavioral discrimination of speech. We examined the behavioral discrimination of noise vocoded consonants and vowels by rats and recorded neural activity patterns from rat primary auditory cortex (A1) for the same sounds. We report the first evidence of behavioral discrimination of degraded speech sounds by an animal model. Our results show that rats are able to accurately discriminate both consonant and vowel sounds even after significant spectral and temporal degradation. The degree of degradation that rats can tolerate is comparable to human listeners. We observed that neural discrimination based on spatiotemporal patterns (spike timing) of A1 neurons is highly correlated with behavioral discrimination of consonants and that neural discrimination based on spatial activity patterns (spike count) of A1 neurons is highly correlated with behavioral discrimination of vowels. The results of the current study indicate that speech discrimination is resistant to degradation as long as the degraded sounds generate distinct patterns of neural activity.