Cortical tracking of speech-in-noise develops from childhood to adulthood

Marc Vander Ghinst, Mathieu Bourguignon, Maxime Niesen, Vincent Wens, Sergio Hassid, Georges Choufani, Veikko Jousmäki, Riitta Hari, Serge Goldman, Xavier De Tiège

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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In multitalker backgrounds, the auditory cortex of adult humans tracks the attended speech stream rather than the global auditory scene. Still, it is unknown whether such preferential tracking also occurs in children whose speech-in-noise (SiN) abilities are typically lower compared with adults. We used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to investigate the frequency-specific cortical tracking of different elements of a cocktail party auditory scene in 20 children (age range, 6-9 years; 8 females) and 20 adults (age range, 21-40 years; 10 females). During MEG recordings, subjects attended to four different 5 min stories, mixed with different levels of multitalker background at four signal-to-noise ratios (SNRs; noiseless, +5, 0, and -5 dB). Coherence analysis quantified the coupling between the time courses of the MEG activity and attended speech stream, multitalker background, or global auditory scene, respectively. In adults, statistically significant coherence was observed between MEG signals originating from the auditory system and the attended stream at <1, 1-4, and 4-8 Hz in all SNR conditions. Children displayed similar coupling at <1 and 1-4 Hz, but increasing noise impaired the coupling more strongly than in adults. Also, children displayed drastically lower coherence at 4-8 Hz in all SNR conditions. These results suggest that children's difficulties to understand speech in noisy conditions are related to an immature selective cortical tracking of the attended speech streams. Our results also provide unprecedented evidence for an acquired cortical tracking of speech at syllable rate and argue for a progressive development of SiN abilities in humans.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Behaviorally, children are less proficient than adults at understanding speech-in-noise. Here, neuromagnetic signals were recorded while healthy adults and typically developing 6- to 9-year-old children attended to a speech stream embedded in a multitalker background noise with varying intensity. Results demonstrate that auditory cortices of both children and adults selectively track the attended speaker's voice rather than the global acoustic input at phrasal and word rates. However, increments of noise compromised the tracking significantly more in children than in adults. Unexpectedly, children displayed limited tracking of both the attended voice and the global acoustic input at the 4-8 Hz syllable rhythm. Thus, both speech-in-noise abilities and cortical tracking of speech syllable repetition rate seem to mature later in adolescence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2938–2950
Number of pages13
Issue number15
Early online date11 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2019
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • human brain
  • coherence analysis
  • magnetoencephalography
  • children
  • speech-in-noise
  • speech comprehension
  • cerebral cortex


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