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Scientists discover how brain predicts whats next when listening to speech

Thursday 27th April 2017
Scientists have discovered how the brain is able to predict whats likely to come next when listening to another person talking. Image: marrio31 via iStock
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UK scientists have contributed to a groundbreaking new study that reveals for the first time how the brain is able to predict what is coming next when another person is talking.

Researchers based at Newcastle University have worked with doctors at the University of Iowa on the new study, which found that the way both monkeys and humans piece together sound sequences in their brains is effectively the same, meaning it has remained unchanged in people despite evolution.

It is hoped that this discovery could lead to new insights benefiting stroke patients or people living with dementia to help them to communicate with others more easily.

Their work resulted in the finding that there are specific mechanisms in the brain dedicated to not just processing the speech of others, but that can also predict which words are likely to come next in a sequence.

It was found that these neurons are able to co-ordinate with each other in order to create neural populations that are highly intelligent and can anticipate the next steps of a sequence.

However, when an individual suffers a stroke or is diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition such as schizophrenia, dyslexia or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, this function is impaired, preventing them from being able to follow speech and communicate as well as others.

As a result, this new discovery could pave the way for further research into speech and language therapy and how being able to predict sequences of words or sounds plays a key part in this.

Study co-author Dr Yuki Kikuchi of Newcastle University commented: "In effect, we have discovered the mechanisms for speech in your brain that work like predictive text on your mobile phone, anticipating what you are going to hear next.

"This could help us better understand what is happening when the brain fails to make fundamental predictions, such as in people with dementia or after a stroke."

Written by Martin Lambert

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