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The Temporal Lobes Differentiate between the Voices of Famous and Unknown People: An Event-Related fMRI Study on Speaker Recognition

Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0047626
  • Research Article
  • Biology
  • Computational Biology
  • Natural Language Processing
  • Neuroscience
  • Neuroimaging
  • Fmri
  • Sensory Systems
  • Auditory System
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neurolinguistics
  • Sensory Perception
  • Engineering
  • Signal Processing
  • Speech Signal Processing
  • Social And Behavioral Sciences
  • Linguistics
  • Natural Language
  • Semantics
  • Speech
  • Linguistics


It is widely accepted that the perception of human voices is supported by neural structures located along the superior temporal sulci. However, there is an ongoing discussion to what extent the activations found in fMRI studies are evoked by the vocal features themselves or are the result of phonetic processing. To show that the temporal lobes are indeed engaged in voice processing, short utterances spoken by famous and unknown people were presented to healthy young participants whose task it was to identify the familiar speakers. In two event-related fMRI experiments, the temporal lobes were found to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar voices such that named voices elicited higher BOLD signal intensities than unfamiliar voices. Yet, the temporal cortices did not only discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar voices. Experiment 2, which required overtly spoken responses and allowed to distinguish between four familiarity grades, revealed that there was a fine-grained differentiation between all of these familiarity levels with higher familiarity being associated with larger BOLD signal amplitudes. Finally, we observed a gradual response change such that the BOLD signal differences between unfamiliar and highly familiar voices increased with the distance of an area from the transverse temporal gyri, especially towards the anterior temporal cortex and the middle temporal gyri. Therefore, the results suggest that (the anterior and non-superior portions of) the temporal lobes participate in voice-specific processing independent from phonetic components also involved in spoken speech material.

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