Researchers reconstruct spoken words as processed in nonhuman primate brains
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The brain systems involved in the initial processing of sound are similar in humans and non-human primates. The first level of processing, which happens in what's called the primary auditory cortex, sorts sounds according to attributes like pitch or tone. The signal then moves to the secondary auditory cortex, where it's processed further. When someone is listening to spoken words, for example, this is where the sounds are classified by phonemes -- the simplest features that enable us to distinguish one word from another. After that, the information is sent to other parts of the brain for the processing that enables human comprehension of speech.
But because that early-stage processing of sound is similar in humans and non-human primates, learning how primates process the words they hear is useful, even though they likely don't understand what those words mean. For the study, two pea-sized implants with 96-channel microelectrode arrays recorded the activity of neurons while rhesus macaques listened to recordings of individual English words and macaque calls. In this case, the macaques heard fairly simple one- or two-syllable words tree, good, north,cricket and program.
The researchers processed the neural recordings using computer algorithms specifically developed to recognize neural patterns associated with particular words. From there, the neural data could be translated back into computer-generated speech. Finally, the team used several metrics to evaluate how closely the reconstructed speech matched the original spoken word that the macaque heard. The research showed the recorded neural data produced high-fidelity reconstructions that were clear to a human listener. The use of multielectrode arrays to record such complex auditory information was a first, the researchers say.
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