Brains of Phonetics Experts Differ From Those of General Public

Some differences probably due to training, but others present at birth, study suggests

WEDNESDAY, March 16 (HealthDay News) -- The brain structure of expert phoneticians differs from that of the general public, finds a new study.

Some of these differences may be due to the effects of experience and training, but others are likely to be present from birth, said the team of neuroscientists at University College London.

Expert phoneticians specialize in the study of phonetics and are able to distinguish between similar speech sounds and subtle regional accents.

The researchers used MRI to scan the brains of 17 expert phoneticians and 16 healthy members of the general public and found clear differences in the structure of key areas of the brain. The study appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.

"We found a brain area which correlates in size with numbers of years analyzing the sounds of speech. Interestingly, we also find that the shape of the left auditory cortex -- something which is established in the womb -- also differs between expert phoneticians and lay controls, but doesn't correlate with years of practice," professor Sophie Scott, a Wellcome Trust senior research fellow, said in a news release.

"The finding may suggest a predisposition in some people to be interested in sound, and may help them decide to choose this kind of career," she said, adding jokingly, "Perhaps this is why Henry Higgins [in "My Fair Lady"] became a professor of phonetics rather than, say, a professor of physics."

This line of research may also help improve understanding of disorders involving phonetics, such as developmental dyslexia.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about dyslexia.

Robert Preidt SOURCE: The Wellcome Trust, news release, March 15, 2011

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