It has long been known that listening to speech activates inferior frontal (pre-)motor regions in addition to a more dorsal premotor site (dPM). Recent work shows that dPM, located adjacent to laryngeal motor cortex, responds to low-level acoustic speech cues including vocal pitch, and the speech envelope, in addition to higher-level cues such as phoneme categories. An emerging hypothesis is that dPM is part of a general auditory-guided laryngeal control circuit that plays a role in producing speech and other voluntary auditory–vocal behaviors. We recently reported a study in which dPM responded to vocal pitch during a degraded speech recognition task, but only when speech was rated as unintelligible; dPM was more robustly modulated by the categorical difference between intelligible and unintelligible speech. Contrary to the general auditory–vocal hypothesis, this suggests intelligible speech is the primary driver of dPM. However, the same pattern of results was observed in pitch-sensitive auditory cortex. Crucially, vocal pitch was not relevant to the intelligibility judgment task, which may have facilitated processing of phonetic information at the expense of vocal pitch cues. The present fMRI study (n = 25) tests the hypothesis that, for a multitalker task that emphasizes pitch for talker segregation, left dPM and pitch-sensitive auditory regions will respond to vocal pitch regardless of overall speech intelligibility. This would suggest that pitch processing is indeed a primary concern of this circuit, apparent during perception only when the task demands it. Spectrotemporal modulation distortion was used to independently modulate vocal pitch and phonetic content in two-talker (male/female) utterances across two conditions (Competing, Unison), only one of which required pitch-based segregation (Competing). A Bayesian hierarchical drift-diffusion model was used to predict speech recognition performance from patterns of spectrotemporal distortion imposed on each trial. The model's drift rate parameter, a d′-like measure of performance, was strongly associated with vocal pitch for Competing but not Unison. Using a second Bayesian hierarchical model, we identified regions where behaviorally relevant acoustic features were related to fMRI activation in dPM. We regressed the hierarchical drift-diffusion model's posterior predictions of trial-wise drift rate, reflecting the relative presence or absence of behaviorally relevant acoustic features from trial to trial, against trial-wise activation amplitude. A significant positive association with overall drift rate, reflecting vocal pitch and phonetic cues related to overall intelligibility, was observed in left dPM and bilateral auditory cortex in both conditions. A significant positive association with “pitch-restricted” drift rate, reflecting only the relative presence or absence of behaviorally relevant pitch cues, regardless of the presence or absence of phonetic content (intelligibility), was observed in left dPM, but only in the Competing condition. Interestingly, the same effect was observed in bilateral auditory cortex but in both conditions. A post hoc mediation analysis ruled out the possibility that decision load was responsible for the observed pitch effects. These findings suggest that processing of vocal pitch is a primary concern of the auditory-cortex–dPM circuit, although during perception core pitch, processing is carried out by auditory cortex with a potential modulatory influence from dPM.

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