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Cortical Tracking of a Background Speaker Modulates the Comprehension of a Foreground Speech Signal

  • Keshavarzi, Mahmoud
  • Varano, Enrico
  • Reichenbach, Tobias
Published Article
Journal of Neuroscience
Society for Neuroscience
Publication Date
Jun 09, 2021
DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3200-20.2021
PMID: 33926996
PMCID: PMC8197648
PubMed Central
  • Research Articles
  • Behavioral/Cognitive


Understanding speech in background noise is a difficult task. The tracking of speech rhythms such as the rate of syllables and words by cortical activity has emerged as a key neural mechanism for speech-in-noise comprehension. In particular, recent investigations have used transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) with the envelope of a speech signal to influence the cortical speech tracking, demonstrating that this type of stimulation modulates comprehension and therefore providing evidence of a functional role of the cortical tracking in speech processing. Cortical activity has been found to track the rhythms of a background speaker as well, but the functional significance of this neural response remains unclear. Here we use a speech-comprehension task with a target speaker in the presence of a distractor voice to show that tACS with the speech envelope of the target voice as well as tACS with the envelope of the distractor speaker both modulate the comprehension of the target speech. Because the envelope of the distractor speech does not carry information about the target speech stream, the modulation of speech comprehension through tACS with this envelope provides evidence that the cortical tracking of the background speaker affects the comprehension of the foreground speech signal. The phase dependency of the resulting modulation of speech comprehension is, however, opposite to that obtained from tACS with the envelope of the target speech signal. This suggests that the cortical tracking of the ignored speech stream and that of the attended speech stream may compete for neural resources. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Loud environments such as busy pubs or restaurants can make conversation difficult. However, they also allow us to eavesdrop into other conversations that occur in the background. In particular, we often notice when somebody else mentions our name, even if we have not been listening to that person. However, the neural mechanisms by which background speech is processed remain poorly understood. Here we use transcranial alternating current stimulation, a technique through which neural activity in the cerebral cortex can be influenced, to show that cortical responses to rhythms in the distractor speech modulate the comprehension of the target speaker. Our results provide evidence that the cortical tracking of background speech rhythms plays a functional role in speech processing.

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