Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Categorical perception, an increased sensitivity to between- compared with within-category contrasts, is a stable property of native speech perception that emerges as language matures. Although recent research suggests that categorical responses to speech sounds can be found in left prefrontal as well as temporo-parietal areas, it is unclear how the neural system develops heightened sensitivity to between-category contrasts. In the current study, two groups of adult participants were trained to categorize speech sounds taken from a dental/retroflex/velar continuum according to two different boundary locations. Behavioral results suggest that for successful learners, categorization training led to increased discrimination accuracy for between-category contrasts with no concomitant increase for within-category contrasts. Neural responses to the learned category schemes were measured using a short-interval habituation design during fMRI scanning. Whereas both inferior frontal and temporal regions showed sensitivity to phonetic contrasts sampled from the continuum, only the bilateral middle frontal gyri exhibited a pattern consistent with encoding of the learned category scheme. Taken together, these results support a view in which top–down information about category membership may reshape perceptual sensitivities via attention or executive mechanisms in the frontal lobes.