Speech is perceived both by ear and by eye. Unlike heard speech, some seen speech gestures can be captured in stilled image sequences. Previous studies have shown that in hearing people, natural time-varying silent seen speech can access the auditory cortex (left superior temporal regions). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the present study explored the extent to which this circuitry was activated when seen speech was deprived of its time-varying characteristics.

In the scanner, hearing participants were instructed to look for a prespecified visible speech target sequence (“voo” or “ahv”) among other monosyllables. In one condition, the image sequence comprised a series of stilled key frames showing apical gestures (e.g., separate frames for “v” and “oo” [from the target] or “ee” and “m” [i.e., from nontarget syllables]). In the other condition, natural speech movement of the same overall segment duration was seen.

In contrast to a baseline condition in which the letter “V” was superimposed on a resting face, stilled speech face images generated activation in posterior cortical regions associated with the perception of biological movement, despite the lack of apparent movement in the speech image sequence. Activation was also detected in traditional speech-processing regions including the left inferior frontal (Broca's) area, left superior temporal sulcus (STS), and left supramarginal gyrus (the dorsal aspect of Wernicke's area). Stilled speech sequences also generated activation in the ventral premotor cortex and anterior inferior parietal sulcus bilaterally.

Moving faces generated significantly greater cortical activation than stilled face sequences, and in similar regions. However, a number of differences between stilled and moving speech were also observed. In the visual cortex, stilled faces generated relatively more activation in primary visual regions (V1/V2), while visual movement areas (V5/MT+) were activated to a greater extent by moving faces. Cortical regions activated more by naturally moving speaking faces included the auditory cortex (Brodmann's Areas 41/42; lateral parts of Heschl's gyrus) and the left STS and inferior frontal gyrus.

Seen speech with normal time-varying characteristics appears to have preferential access to “purely” auditory processing regions specialized for language, possibly via acquired dynamic audiovisual integration mechanisms in STS. When seen speech lacks natural time-varying characteristics, access to speech-processing systems in the left temporal lobe may be achieved predominantly via action-based speech representations, realized in the ventral premotor cortex.

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