Intonation Units in spontaneous speech evoke a neural response

Maya Inbar*, Shir Genzer, Anat Perry, Eitan Grossman, Ayelet N. Landau*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Spontaneous speech is produced in chunks called Intonation Units (IUs). IUs are defined by a set of prosodic cues and presumably occur in all human languages. Recent work has shown that across different grammatical and socio-cultural conditions IUs form rhythms of approximately one unit per second. Linguistic theory suggests that IUs pace the flow of information in the discourse. As a result, IUs provide a promising and hitherto unexplored theoretical framework for studying the neural mechanisms of communication. In this article, we identify a neural response unique to the boundary defined by the IU. We measured the EEG of human participants (of either sex) who listened to different speakers recounting an emotional life event. We analyzed the speech stimuli linguistically, and modeled the EEG response at word offset using a GLM approach. We find that the EEG response to IU-final words differs from the response to IU-nonfinal words even when equating acoustic boundary strength. Finally, we relate our findings to the body of research on rhythmic brain mechanisms in speech processing. We study the unique contribution of IUs and acoustic boundary strength in predicting delta-band EEG. This analysis suggests that IU-related neural activity, which is tightly linked to the classic Closure Positive Shift, could be a time-locked component that captures the previously characterized delta-band neural speech tracking.

Original languageAmerican English
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number48
StatePublished - 29 Nov 2023

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