Understanding the rapidly developing building blocks of speech perception in infancy requires a close look at the auditory prerequisites for speech sound processing. Pioneering studies have demonstrated that hemispheric specializations for language processing are already present in early infancy. However, whether these computational asymmetries can be considered a function of linguistic attributes or a consequence of basic temporal signal properties is under debate. Several studies in adults link hemispheric specialization for certain aspects of speech perception to an asymmetry in cortical tuning and reveal that the auditory cortices are differentially sensitive to spectrotemporal features of speech. Applying concurrent electrophysiological (EEG) and hemodynamic (near-infrared spectroscopy) recording to newborn infants listening to temporally structured nonspeech signals, we provide evidence that newborns process nonlinguistic acoustic stimuli that share critical temporal features with language in a differential manner. The newborn brain preferentially processes temporal modulations especially relevant for phoneme perception. In line with multi-time-resolution conceptions, modulations on the time scale of phonemes elicit strong bilateral cortical responses. Our data furthermore suggest that responses to slow acoustic modulations are lateralized to the right hemisphere. That is, the newborn auditory cortex is sensitive to the temporal structure of the auditory input and shows an emerging tendency for functional asymmetry. Hence, our findings support the hypothesis that development of speech perception is linked to basic capacities in auditory processing. From birth, the brain is tuned to critical temporal properties of linguistic signals to facilitate one of the major needs of humans: to communicate.
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