The Speaking Brain

Science  16 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5951, pp. 372-373
DOI: 10.1126/science.1181675

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How does intention to speak become the action of speaking? It involves the generation of a preverbal message that is tailored to the requirements of a particular language, and through a series of steps, the message is transformed into a linear sequence of speech sounds (1, 2). These steps include retrieving different kinds of information from memory (semantic, syntactic, and phonological), and combining them into larger structures, a process called unification. Despite general agreement about the steps that connect intention to articulation, there is no consensus about their temporal profile or the role of feedback from later steps (3, 4). In addition, since the discovery by the French physician Pierre Paul Broca (in 1865) of the role of the left inferior frontal cortex in speaking, relatively little progress has been made in understanding the neural infrastructure that supports speech production (5). One reason is that the characteristics of natural language are uniquely human, and thus the neurobiology of language lacks an adequate animal model. But on page 445 of this issue, Sahin et al. (6) demonstrate, by recording neuronal activity in the human brain, that different kinds of linguistic information are indeed sequentially processed within Broca's area.