Neural speech restoration at the cocktail party: Auditory cortex recovers masked speech of both attended and ignored speakers


Humans are remarkably skilled at listening to one speaker out of an acoustic mixture of several speech sources. Two speakers are easily segregated, even without binaural cues, but the neural mechanisms underlying this ability are not well understood. One possibility is that early cortical processing performs a spectrotemporal decomposition of the acoustic mixture, allowing the attended speech to be reconstructed via optimally weighted recombinations that discount spectrotemporal regions where sources heavily overlap. Using human magnetoencephalography (MEG) responses to a 2-talker mixture, we show evidence for an alternative possibility, in which early, active segregation occurs even for strongly spectrotemporally overlapping regions. Early (approximately 70-millisecond) responses to nonoverlapping spectrotemporal features are seen for both talkers. When competing talkers’ spectrotemporal features mask each other, the individual representations persist, but they occur with an approximately 20-millisecond delay. This suggests that the auditory cortex recovers acoustic features that are masked in the mixture, even if they occurred in the ignored speech. The existence of such noise-robust cortical representations, of features present in attended as well as ignored speech, suggests an active cortical stream segregation process, which could explain a range of behavioral effects of ignored background speech.