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Open Access Research article

Disentangling the effects of phonation and articulation: Hemispheric asymmetries in the auditory N1m response of the human brain

Hannu Tiitinen12*, Anna Mari Mäkelä12, Ville Mäkinen12, Patrick JC May12 and Paavo Alku3

Author Affiliations

1 Apperception & Cortical Dynamics (ACD), Department of Psychology, P.O.B. 9, FIN-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland

2 BioMag Laboratory, Engineering Centre, Helsinki University Central Hospital, Finland

3 Laboratory of Acoustics and Audio Signal Processing, Helsinki University of Technology, Espoo, Finland

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BMC Neuroscience 2005, 6:62  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-6-62

Published: 15 October 2005



The cortical activity underlying the perception of vowel identity has typically been addressed by manipulating the first and second formant frequency (F1 & F2) of the speech stimuli. These two values, originating from articulation, are already sufficient for the phonetic characterization of vowel category. In the present study, we investigated how the spectral cues caused by articulation are reflected in cortical speech processing when combined with phonation, the other major part of speech production manifested as the fundamental frequency (F0) and its harmonic integer multiples. To study the combined effects of articulation and phonation we presented vowels with either high (/a/) or low (/u/) formant frequencies which were driven by three different types of excitation: a natural periodic pulseform reflecting the vibration of the vocal folds, an aperiodic noise excitation, or a tonal waveform. The auditory N1m response was recorded with whole-head magnetoencephalography (MEG) from ten human subjects in order to resolve whether brain events reflecting articulation and phonation are specific to the left or right hemisphere of the human brain.


The N1m responses for the six stimulus types displayed a considerable dynamic range of 115–135 ms, and were elicited faster (~10 ms) by the high-formant /a/ than by the low-formant /u/, indicating an effect of articulation. While excitation type had no effect on the latency of the right-hemispheric N1m, the left-hemispheric N1m elicited by the tonally excited /a/ was some 10 ms earlier than that elicited by the periodic and the aperiodic excitation. The amplitude of the N1m in both hemispheres was systematically stronger to stimulation with natural periodic excitation. Also, stimulus type had a marked (up to 7 mm) effect on the source location of the N1m, with periodic excitation resulting in more anterior sources than aperiodic and tonal excitation.


The auditory brain areas of the two hemispheres exhibit differential tuning to natural speech signals, observable already in the passive recording condition. The variations in the latency and strength of the auditory N1m response can be traced back to the spectral structure of the stimuli. More specifically, the combined effects of the harmonic comb structure originating from the natural voice excitation caused by the fluctuating vocal folds and the location of the formant frequencies originating from the vocal tract leads to asymmetric behaviour of the left and right hemisphere.