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Journal Article

The influence of auditory attention on rhythmic speech tracking: Implications for studies of unresponsive patients


Melloni,  Lucia
Department of Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;
Department of Neurology, New York University;

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Sokoliuk, R., Degano, G., Melloni, L., Noppeney, U., & Cruse, D. (2021). The influence of auditory attention on rhythmic speech tracking: Implications for studies of unresponsive patients. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 15: 702768. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2021.702768.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-D112-6
Language comprehension relies on integrating words into progressively more complex structures, like phrases and sentences. This hierarchical structure-building is reflected in rhythmic neural activity across multiple timescales in E/MEG in healthy, awake participants. However, recent studies have shown evidence for this “cortical tracking” of higher-level linguistic structures also in a proportion of unresponsive patients. What does this tell us about these patients’ residual levels of cognition and consciousness? Must the listener direct their attention toward higher level speech structures to exhibit cortical tracking, and would selective attention across levels of the hierarchy influence the expression of these rhythms? We investigated these questions in an EEG study of 72 healthy human volunteers listening to streams of monosyllabic isochronous English words that were either unrelated (scrambled condition) or composed of four-word-sequences building meaningful sentences (sentential condition). Importantly, there were no physical cues between four-word-sentences. Rather, boundaries were marked by syntactic structure and thematic role assignment. Participants were divided into three attention groups: from passive listening (passive group) to attending to individual words (word group) or sentences (sentence group). The passive and word groups were initially naïve to the sentential stimulus structure, while the sentence group was not. We found significant tracking at word- and sentence rate across all three groups, with sentence tracking linked to left middle temporal gyrus and right superior temporal gyrus. Goal-directed attention to words did not enhance word-rate-tracking, suggesting that word tracking here reflects largely automatic mechanisms, as was shown for tracking at the syllable-rate before. Importantly, goal-directed attention to sentences relative to words significantly increased sentence-rate-tracking over left inferior frontal gyrus. This attentional modulation of rhythmic EEG activity at the sentential rate highlights the role of attention in integrating individual words into complex linguistic structures. Nevertheless, given the presence of high-level cortical tracking under conditions of lower attentional effort, our findings underline the suitability of the paradigm in its clinical application in patients after brain injury. The neural dissociation between passive tracking of sentences and directed attention to sentences provides a potential means to further characterise the cognitive state of each unresponsive patient.