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Brain responds to human voice in one fifth of a second

Visit University of Glasgow website

19 October 2009

BBSRC-funded researchers have found that the sound of human voice can be recognised by the brain in less than one fifth of a second. The research could help scientists better understand conditions such as autism.

The study, conducted at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging at the University of Glasgow, found that the brain recognises voices within a similar time-frame as it recognises faces – after around 170ms following presentation.

Ian Charest, a PhD student who conducted the study under the supervision of Professor Pascal Belin, said: “Because human social interactions rely heavily on facial and vocal expressions, the brain is likely to have developed the ability to process them very rapidly and efficiently. Since faces and voices are usually paired together in social communication, it makes sense that the brain would process them in a similar time-frame.”

Researchers tested 32 volunteers in an experiment in which electrical signals generated by the brain were measured using EEG caps as the volunteers listened to series of sounds comprising bird songs, environmental sounds and human voices.

They observed electric potentials related to voice that had twice the amplitude as those related to bird songs and environmental sounds in less than 200 milliseconds.

Ian, from Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada added: “This knowledge may also help us understand conditions such as autism and help develop more accessible diagnostic tools. Autistic individuals have difficulties in social interactions and we observe abnormal brain activity after presentation of faces or voices in their brains.”

The study, entitled ‘Electrophysiological evidence for an early processing of human voices’ is published online by BMC Neuroscience. In addition to BBSRC funding the research was also supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council, Royal Society, Canadian Foundation for Innovation, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institute of Health Research, and France-Télécom.

For more information on their research and on voice perception, please visit the Voice Neurocognition Laboratory’s website at: http://vnl.psy.gla.ac.uk.

ENDS

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Illustration of the electrophysiological response to voice. On the left you can see the vocal sound signal entering the cartoon’s ear (middle) and on the right the brain electrical activity with potentials related to voice (red curve), bird songs (green curve) and environmental sounds (blue curve). (105KB)

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Stuart Forsyth, University of Glasgow Media Relations Office

tel: 0141 330 4831

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Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

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