Scientists Spot Brain's 'Impersonation Centers'

FRIDAY, June 21 (HealthDay News) -- Every time you try to mimic the speech of a friend or celebrity, the act switches on specific parts of your brain, new research suggests.

In the study, investigators had amateur impressionists recite the opening lines of nursery rhymes using either their normal voice, a foreign or regional accent, or an impersonation of another person's voice.

"The voice is a powerful channel for the expression of our identity -- it conveys information such as gender, age and place of birth, but crucially, it also expresses who we want to be," study author Carolyn McGettigan, of the department of psychology at Royal Holloway University, London, said in a university news release.

"Our aim is to find out more about how the brain controls this very flexible communicative tool, which could potentially lead to new treatments for those looking to recover their own vocal identity following brain injury or a stroke," she said.

McGettigan's team used an fMRI scanner to track the brain's activity in real time. They found that when the impressionists deliberately changed their voice, two regions of the brain -- the left anterior insula and inferior frontal gyrus -- were brought into play.

Compared to simply trying on accents, impersonations also triggered greater responses in two other brain regions -- the posterior superior temporal/inferior parietal cortex and the right middle/anterior superior temporal sulcus.

"Consider the difference between talking to a friend on the phone, talking to a police officer who's cautioning you for parking violation, or speaking to a young infant," noted McGettigan. "While the words we use might be different across these settings, another dramatic difference is the tone and style with which we deliver the words we say. We wanted to find out more about this process and how the brain controls it."

The study was published recently in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides more information on the brain and how it works.

SOURCE: Royal Holloway, University of London, news release, June 18, 2013.

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