Functional neuroanatomy of non-verbal semantic sound processing in humans

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Environmental sounds convey specific meanings and the neural circuitry for their recognition may have preceded language. To dissociate semantic mnemonic from sensory perceptual processing of non-verbal sound stimuli we systematically altered the inherent semantic properties of non-verbal sounds from natural and man-made sources while keeping their acoustic characteristics closely matched. We hypothesized that acoustic analysis of complex non-verbal sounds would be right lateralized in auditory cortex regardless of meaning content and that left hemisphere regions would be engaged when meaningful concept could be extracted. Using H215O-PET imaging and SPM data analysis, we demonstrated that activation of the left superior temporal and left parahippocampal gyrus along with left inferior frontal regions was specifically associated with listening to meaningful sounds. In contrast, for both types of sounds, acoustic analysis was associated with activation of right auditory cortices. We conclude that left hemisphere brain regions are engaged when sounds are meaningful or intelligible.

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