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Monkey talk, human speech share left-brain processing

Scans have pinpointed circuits in the monkey brain that could be precursors of those in humans for speech and language. As in humans, an area specialized for processing species-specific vocalizations is on the left side of the brain, report Drs. Amy Poremba, Mortimer Mishkin, and colleagues in NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center (CC), components of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the University of Iowa. An area near the left temple responded significantly more than the same area on the right only to monkey calls, not to other animal calls, human voices or various other sounds. The researchers published their findings in the January 29, 2004 Nature.

"Since it's in the left temporal lobe and specialized for vocalizations only, it bears intriguing similarities to human language," noted Mishkin. "Assuming this is an adaptive mechanism, it suggests that vocalizations can be deciphered better if they are processed by only one temporal pole rather than by both."

Scientists have known for years that the human brain processes speech on the left side of the brain, but they only had hints that this is also the case for non-human primates. For example, when a monkey hears a call from behind, it characteristically turns its head to the right, suggesting that the primitive vocalizations are being processed in the left hemisphere, which receives greater input from the right ear than from the left. Also, a monkey's ability to perceive such calls is impaired if it lacks the left auditory cortex, but not the right.

To find out how this works, the researchers used PET (positron emission tomography) scanning. A radioactive tracer visualized the parts of the brain that were active while different types of sounds were being processed. After eight healthy monkeys heard a series of monkey calls, an area just below the left temple, at the front of the left temporal lobe (left dorsal temporal
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Contact: Jules Asher
NIMHpress@nih.gov
301-443-4536
NIH/National Institute of Mental Health
30-Jan-2004


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