Neural source dynamics of brain responses to continuous stimuli: Speech processing from acoustics to comprehension


Human experience often involves continuous sensory information that unfolds over time. This is true in particular for speech comprehension, where continuous acoustic signals are processed over seconds or even minutes. We show that brain responses to such continuous stimuli can be investigated in detail, for magnetoencephalography (MEG) data, by combining linear kernel estimation with minimum norm source localization. Previous research has shown that the requirement to average data over many trials can be overcome by modeling the brain response as a linear convolution of the stimulus and a kernel, or response function, and estimating a kernel that predicts the response from the stimulus. However, such analysis has been typically restricted to sensor space. Here we demonstrate that this analysis can also be performed in neural source space. We first computed distributed minimum norm current source estimates for continuous MEG recordings, and then computed response functions for the current estimate at each source element, using the boosting algorithm with cross-validation. Permutation tests can then assess the significance of individual predictor variables, as well as features of the corresponding spatio-temporal response functions. We demonstrate the viability of this technique by computing spatio-temporal response functions for speech stimuli, using predictor variables reflecting acoustic, lexical and semantic processing. Results indicate that processes related to comprehension of continuous speech can be differentiated anatomically as well as temporally: acoustic information engaged auditory cortex at short latencies, followed by responses over the central sulcus and inferior frontal gyrus, possibly related to somatosensory/motor cortex involvement in speech perception; lexical frequency was associated with a left-lateralized response in auditory cortex and subsequent bilateral frontal activity; and semantic composition was associated with bilateral temporal and frontal brain activity. We conclude that this technique can be used to study the neural processing of continuous stimuli in time and anatomical space with the millisecond temporal resolution of MEG. This suggests new avenues for analyzing neural processing of naturalistic stimuli, without the necessity of averaging over artificially short or truncated stimuli.