The brain's circuitry for perceiving and producing speech may show a notable level of overlap that is crucial for normal development and behavior. The extent to which sensorimotor integration plays a role in speech perception remains highly controversial, however. Methodological constraints related to experimental designs and analysis methods have so far prevented the disentanglement of neural responses to acoustic versus articulatory speech features. Using a passive listening paradigm and multivariate decoding of single-trial fMRI responses to spoken syllables, we investigated brain-based generalization of articulatory features (place and manner of articulation, and voicing) beyond their acoustic (surface) form in adult human listeners. For example, we trained a classifier to discriminate place of articulation within stop syllables (e.g., /pa/ vs /ta/) and tested whether this training generalizes to fricatives (e.g., /fa/ vs /sa/). This novel approach revealed generalization of place and manner of articulation at multiple cortical levels within the dorsal auditory pathway, including auditory, sensorimotor, motor, and somatosensory regions, suggesting the representation of sensorimotor information. Additionally, generalization of voicing included the right anterior superior temporal sulcus associated with the perception of human voices as well as somatosensory regions bilaterally. Our findings highlight the close connection between brain systems for speech perception and production, and in particular, indicate the availability of articulatory codes during passive speech perception.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Sensorimotor integration is central to verbal communication and provides a link between auditory signals of speech perception and motor programs of speech production. It remains highly controversial, however, to what extent the brain's speech perception system actively uses articulatory (motor), in addition to acoustic/phonetic, representations. In this study, we examine the role of articulatory representations during passive listening using carefully controlled stimuli (spoken syllables) in combination with multivariate fMRI decoding. Our approach enabled us to disentangle brain responses to acoustic and articulatory speech properties. In particular, it revealed articulatory-specific brain responses of speech at multiple cortical levels, including auditory, sensorimotor, and motor regions, suggesting the representation of sensorimotor information during passive speech perception.