You talkin' to me?Communicative talker gaze activates left-lateralized superior temporal cortex during perception of degraded speech

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Neuroimaging studies of speech perception have consistently indicated a left-hemisphere dominance in the temporal lobes' responses to intelligible auditory speech signals (McGettigan and Scott, 2012). However, there are important communicative cues that cannot be extracted from auditory signals alone, including the direction of the talker's gaze. Previous work has implicated the superior temporal cortices in processing gaze direction, with evidence for predominantly right-lateralized responses (Carlin & Calder, 2013). The aim of the current study was to investigate whether the lateralization of responses to talker gaze differs in an auditory communicative context. Participants in a functional MRI experiment watched and listened to videos of spoken sentences in which the auditory intelligibility and talker gaze direction were manipulated factorially. We observed a left-dominant temporal lobe sensitivity to the talker's gaze direction, in which the left anterior superior temporal sulcus/gyrus and temporal pole showed an enhanced response to direct gaze – further investigation revealed that this pattern of lateralization was modulated by auditory intelligibility. Our results suggest flexibility in the distribution of neural responses to social cues in the face within the context of a challenging speech perception task.HighlightsTalker gaze is an important social cue during speech comprehension.Neural responses to gaze were measured during perception of degraded sentences.Gaze direction modulated activation in left-lateralized superior temporal cortex.Left lateralization became stronger when speech was less intelligible.Results suggest task-dependent flexibility in cortical responses to gaze.

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