The Neural Basis of Vocal Pitch Imitation in Humans
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Vocal imitation is a phenotype that is unique to humans among all primate species, and so an understanding of its neural basis is critical in explaining the emergence of both speech and song in human evolution. Two principal neural models of vocal imitation have emerged from a consideration of nonhuman animals. One hypothesis suggests that putative mirror neurons in the inferior frontal gyrus pars opercularis of Broca's area may be important for imitation. An alternative hypothesis derived from the study of songbirds suggests that the corticostriate motor pathway performs sensorimotor processes that are specific to vocal imitation. Using fMRI with a sparse event-related sampling design, we investigated the neural basis of vocal imitation in humans by comparing imitative vocal production of pitch sequences with both nonimitative vocal production and pitch discrimination. The strongest difference between these tasks was found in the putamen bilaterally, providing a striking parallel to the role of the analogous region in songbirds. Other areas preferentially activated during imitation included the orofacial motor cortex, Rolandic operculum, and SMA, which together outline the corticostriate motor loop. No differences were seen in the inferior frontal gyrus. The corticostriate system thus appears to be the central pathway for vocal imitation in humans, as predicted from an analogy with songbirds.
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