This EEG-study aims to investigate age-related differences in the neural oscillation patterns during the processing of temporally modulated speech. Viewing from a lifespan perspective, we recorded the electroencephalogram (EEG) data of three age samples: young adults, middle-aged adults and older adults. Stimuli consisted of temporally degraded sentences in Swedish—a language unfamiliar to all participants. We found age-related differences in phonetic pattern matching when participants were presented with envelope-degraded sentences, whereas no such age-effect was observed in the processing of fine-structure-degraded sentences. Irrespective of age, during speech processing the EEG data revealed a relationship between envelope information and the theta band (4–8 Hz) activity. Additionally, an association between fine-structure information and the gamma band (30–48 Hz) activity was found. No interaction, however, was found between acoustic manipulation of stimuli and age. Importantly, our main finding was paralleled by an overall enhanced power in older adults in high frequencies (gamma: 30–48 Hz). This occurred irrespective of condition. For the most part, this result is in line with the Asymmetric Sampling in Time framework (Poeppel in Speech Commun 41:245–255, 2003), which assumes an isomorphic correspondence between frequency modulations in neurophysiological patterns and acoustic oscillations in spoken language. We conclude that speech-specific neural networks show strong stability over adulthood, despite initial processes of cortical degeneration indicated by enhanced gamma power. The results of our study therefore confirm the concept that sensory and cognitive processes undergo multidirectional trajectories within the context of healthy aging.
Speech processing Temporal information EEG Neural oscillations Theta Gamma
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This research was supported by the Jacobs Foundation Research Grant to Katharina Rufener, the “Fonds zur Förderung des Akademischen Nachwuchses” (FAN) des “Zürcher Universitätsvereins” (ZUNIV) and the University Research Priority Program “Dynamics of Healthy Aging” of the University of Zurich. We are also grateful to Allison Christen and three anonymous reviewers for thoughtful comments on the manuscript.
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