The ability to understanding spoken language is so essential in our life that we hardly even recognize how extraordinary this cognitive process is. The sounds that reach our ear are transformed into a conscious representation of meaningful speech in mere milliseconds. We effortlessly extract the semantic and syntactic information, but also the location, mood, age, gender, social status and even more about the speaker. We only consciously notice speech processing when it does not function the way it should. Trying to understand speech in a foreign language, struggling to keep up conversation at a loud cocktail party, or even hearing “voices” talking to you that are not really there – these are examples of various situations where our auditory system is challenged beyond its comfort zone. In this project, we explore the fundamental mechanisms that enable our brains to process auditory sounds.
The basis of the project is the representation of an auditory percept and its underlying structural, neural and metabolic mechanisms in the brain. Understanding how the so-called “Central Sound Representation” (Näätänen, 2003, in Psychophysiology) is generated and processed in the auditory pathways is essential for understanding various aspects of speech perception, such as language acquisition and development, and plasticity of the auditory system, but also psychiatric symptoms such as auditory hallucinations. Unravelling the interaction between memory traces in long-term memory, incoming information from auditory ascending pathways and top-down cognitive control processes is of utmost importance for multiple clinical conditions. The results of our basic research will lay the groundwork for creating specific tools applicable in clinical practice (e.g. for quickly evaluating the effect of cognitive training on the plasticity of auditory cortex and brain plasticity in general; determining which specific cognitive training protocols are valid and reliable; comparing patient and non-patient groups) and in special groups of population (e.g. for effective language study protocols for non-native speakers and immigrants).