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A new study of the brain has revealed important novel insights into the neural processes that allow people to form words and sentences.
The University of California, San Francisco research saw five volunteers awaiting surgery fitted with electrodes over their ventral sensorimotor cortex - a key centre of speech production - while reading a collection of 460 natural sentences aloud.
The team then took the audio of the volunteers speaking and developed a deep learning algorithm to estimate how the tongue, mouth and larynx moved during specific speaking tasks, helping them to identify distinct populations of neurons responsible for specific vocal tract movement patterns.
In total, four emergent groups of neurons were identified as being responsible for coordinating the movements of muscles in the lips, tongue and throat into the four main configurations of the vocal tract used in American English.
Notably, it was revealed that the brain's speech centres are organised more in accordance with the physical needs of the vocal tract as it produces speech than by how the speech actually sounds. This means, for example, that the brain processes the pronunciation of similar consonant sounds differently depending on how the mouth will need to form itself to prepare for the vowels that follow it.
It is hoped that the findings of this research could provide important new insights for speech therapists, and lay the foundations for new therapeutic tools to be developed in future.
Researcher Josh Chartier said: "This study highlights why we need to take into account vocal tract movements and not just linguistic features like phonemes when studying speech production.
"We know now that the sensorimotor cortex encodes vocal tract movements, so we can use that knowledge to decode cortical activity and translate that via a speech prosthetic. This would give voice to people who can't speak but have intact neural functions."
Written by Martin Lambert
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