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Open Access Research article

Sensitivity of the human auditory cortex to acoustic degradation of speech and non-speech sounds

Ismo Miettinen13*, Hannu Tiitinen13, Paavo Alku2 and Patrick JC May13

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science, Aalto University School of Science and Technology, Espoo, Finland

2 Department of Signal Processing and Acoustics, Aalto University School of Science and Technology, Espoo, Finland

3 BioMag Laboratory, Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa HUSLAB, Helsinki University Central Hospital, Helsinki, Finland

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BMC Neuroscience 2010, 11:24  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-11-24

Published: 22 February 2010



Recent studies have shown that the human right-hemispheric auditory cortex is particularly sensitive to reduction in sound quality, with an increase in distortion resulting in an amplification of the auditory N1m response measured in the magnetoencephalography (MEG). Here, we examined whether this sensitivity is specific to the processing of acoustic properties of speech or whether it can be observed also in the processing of sounds with a simple spectral structure. We degraded speech stimuli (vowel /a/), complex non-speech stimuli (a composite of five sinusoidals), and sinusoidal tones by decreasing the amplitude resolution of the signal waveform. The amplitude resolution was impoverished by reducing the number of bits to represent the signal samples. Auditory evoked magnetic fields (AEFs) were measured in the left and right hemisphere of sixteen healthy subjects.


We found that the AEF amplitudes increased significantly with stimulus distortion for all stimulus types, which indicates that the right-hemispheric N1m sensitivity is not related exclusively to degradation of acoustic properties of speech. In addition, the P1m and P2m responses were amplified with increasing distortion similarly in both hemispheres. The AEF latencies were not systematically affected by the distortion.


We propose that the increased activity of AEFs reflects cortical processing of acoustic properties common to both speech and non-speech stimuli. More specifically, the enhancement is most likely caused by spectral changes brought about by the decrease of amplitude resolution, in particular the introduction of periodic, signal-dependent distortion to the original sound. Converging evidence suggests that the observed AEF amplification could reflect cortical sensitivity to periodic sounds.