Single-cell activity in human STG during perception of phonemes is organized according to manner of articulation

Yair Lakertz*, Ori Ossmy, Naama Friedmann, Roy Mukamel, Itzhak Fried

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the central tasks of the human auditory system is to extract sound features from incoming acoustic signals that are most critical for speech perception. Specifically, phonological features and phonemes are the building blocks for more complex linguistic entities, such as syllables, words and sentences. Previous ECoG and EEG studies showed that various regions in the superior temporal gyrus (STG) exhibit selective responses to specific phonological features. However, electrical activity recorded by ECoG or EEG grids reflects average responses of large neuronal populations and is therefore limited in providing insights into activity patterns of single neurons. Here, we recorded spiking activity from 45 units in the STG from six neurosurgical patients who performed a listening task with phoneme stimuli. Fourteen units showed significant responsiveness to the stimuli. Using a Naïve-Bayes model, we find that single-cell responses to phonemes are governed by manner-of-articulation features and are organized according to sonority with two main clusters for sonorants and obstruents. We further find that ‘neural similarity’ (i.e. the similarity of evoked spiking activity between pairs of phonemes) is comparable to the ‘perceptual similarity’ (i.e. to what extent two phonemes are judged as sounding similar) based on perceptual confusion, assessed behaviorally in healthy subjects. Thus, phonemes that were perceptually similar also had similar neural responses. Taken together, our findings indicate that manner-of-articulation is the dominant organization dimension of phoneme representations at the single-cell level, suggesting a remarkable consistency across levels of analyses, from the single neuron level to that of large neuronal populations and behavior.

Original languageEnglish
Article number117499
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2021


  • Naïve Bayes
  • Phoneme representation
  • Single-unit recordings
  • Speech perception
  • Superior temporal gyrus


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