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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

April 2012, Vol. 24, No. 4, Pages 843-853
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00147)
© 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Specific Neural Traces for Intonational Discourse Categories as Revealed by Human-evoked Potentials
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The neural representation of segmental and tonal phonological distinctions has been shown by means of the MMN ERP, yet this is not the case for intonational discourse contrasts. In Catalan, a rising–falling intonational sequence can be perceived as a statement or as a counterexpectational question, depending exclusively on the size of the pitch range interval of the rising movement. We tested here, using the MMN, whether such categorical distinctions elicited distinct neurophysiological patterns of activity, supporting their specific neural representation. From a behavioral identification experiment, we set the boundary between the two categories and defined four stimuli across the continuum. Although the physical distance between each pair of stimuli was kept constant, the central pair represented an across-category contrast, whereas the other pairs represented within-category contrasts. These four auditory stimuli were contrasted by pairs in three different oddball blocks. The mean amplitude of the MMN was larger for the across-category contrast, suggesting that intonational contrasts in the target language can be encoded automatically in the auditory cortex. These results are in line with recent findings in other fields of linguistics, showing that, when a boundary between categories is crossed, the MMN response is not just larger but rather includes a separate subcomponent.