Speech is a complex and ambiguous acoustic signal that varies significantly within and across speakers. Despite the processing challenge that such variability poses, humans adapt to systematic variations in pronunciation rapidly. The goal of this study is to uncover the neurobiological bases of the attunement process that enables such fluent comprehension. Twenty-four native English participants listened to words spoken by a “canonical” American speaker and two non-canonical speakers, and performed a word-picture matching task, while magnetoencephalography was recorded. Non-canonical speech was created by including systematic phonological substitutions within the word (e.g. [s] → [sh]). Activity in the auditory cortex (superior temporal gyrus) was greater in response to substituted phonemes, and, critically, this was not attenuated by exposure. By contrast, prefrontal regions showed an interaction between the presence of a substitution and the amount of exposure: activity decreased for canonical speech over time, whereas responses to non-canonical speech remained consistently elevated. Grainger causality analyses further revealed that prefrontal responses serve to modulate activity in auditory regions, suggesting the recruitment of top-down processing to decode non-canonical pronunciations. In sum, our results suggest that the behavioural deficit in processing mispronounced phonemes may be due to a disruption to the typical exchange of information between the prefrontal and auditory cortices as observed for canonical speech.
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