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Exploring Neuronal Speech Patterns with Neuropixel Technology

Jan 31, 2024

CNTR researchers uncover single-neuron speech elements from high resolution neuropixel technology.

The human ability to generate an incredible array of articulatory movements to produce speech is a cornerstone of language. The underlying cellular mechanisms that govern this intricate process have long remained elusive.

In a recent study published in Nature, a team of researchers in the Williams’ and Cash Labs, uncovered the fundamental cellular units involved in planning and producing words during speech. Using ultrahigh-density Neuropixels, these researchers were able to record from neurons located in the language-dominant prefrontal cortex. These neurons were found to encode detailed information about the phonetic arrangement and composition of planned words during natural speech production. Remarkably, they represented the specific order and structure of articulatory events before utterance, and even reflected the segmentation of phonetic sequences into distinct syllables. These prefrontal neurons accurately predicted the phonetic, syllabic, and morphological components of upcoming words, exhibiting a temporally ordered dynamic. The researchers demonstrated how these cells are broadly organized along the cortical column and how their activity patterns transition from articulation planning to production. Furthermore, the study revealed how these neurons reliably track the detailed composition of consonant and vowel sounds during perception, while also distinguishing processes specifically related to speaking from those related to listening. This structured organization and encoding cascade of phonetic representations by prefrontal neurons in humans provide crucial insights into the cellular processes underlying speech production.

The collaboration of the Williams’ and Cash labs has propelled our understanding of the complexities of speech production encouraging future investigations into language processing in the human brain.

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