Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Several accounts of speech perception propose that the areas involved in producing language are also involved in perceiving it. In line with this view, neuroimaging studies show activation of premotor cortex (PMC) during phoneme judgment tasks; however, there is debate about whether speech perception necessarily involves motor processes, across all task contexts, or whether the contribution of PMC is restricted to tasks requiring explicit phoneme awareness. Some aspects of speech processing, such as mapping sounds onto meaning, may proceed without the involvement of motor speech areas if PMC specifically contributes to the manipulation and categorical perception of phonemes. We applied TMS to three sites—PMC, posterior superior temporal gyrus, and occipital pole—and for the first time within the TMS literature, directly contrasted two speech perception tasks that required explicit phoneme decisions and mapping of speech sounds onto semantic categories, respectively. TMS to PMC disrupted explicit phonological judgments but not access to meaning for the same speech stimuli. TMS to two further sites confirmed that this pattern was site specific and did not reflect a generic difference in the susceptibility of our experimental tasks to TMS: stimulation of pSTG, a site involved in auditory processing, disrupted performance in both language tasks, whereas stimulation of occipital pole had no effect on performance in either task. These findings demonstrate that, although PMC is important for explicit phonological judgments, crucially, PMC is not necessary for mapping speech onto meanings.