While lifelong language experience modulates subcortical encoding of pitch patterns, there is emerging evidence that short-term training introduced in adulthood also shapes subcortical pitch encoding. Here we use a cross-language design to examine the stability of language experience-dependent subcortical plasticity over multiple days. We then examine the extent to which behavioral relevance induced by sound-to-category training leads to plastic changes in subcortical pitch encoding in adulthood relative to adolescence, a period of ongoing maturation of subcortical and cortical auditory processing. Frequency-following responses (FFRs), which reflect phase-locked activity from subcortical neural ensembles, were elicited while participants passively listened to pitch patterns reflective of Mandarin tones. In experiment 1, FFRs were recorded across three consecutive days from native Chinese-speaking (n = 10) and English-speaking (n = 10) adults. In experiment 2, FFRs were recorded from native English-speaking adolescents (n = 20) and adults (n = 15) before, during, and immediately after a session of sound-to-category training, as well as a day after training ceased. Experiment 1 demonstrated the stability of language experience-dependent subcortical plasticity in pitch encoding across multiple days of passive exposure to linguistic pitch patterns. In contrast, experiment 2 revealed an enhancement in subcortical pitch encoding that emerged a day after the sound-to-category training, with some developmental differences observed. Taken together, these findings suggest that behavioral relevance is a critical component for the observation of plasticity in the subcortical encoding of pitch.
NEW & NOTEWORTHY We examine the timescale of experience-dependent auditory plasticity to linguistically relevant pitch patterns. We find extreme stability in lifelong experience-dependent plasticity. We further demonstrate that subcortical function in adolescents and adults is modulated by a single session of sound-to-category training. Our results suggest that behavioral relevance is a necessary ingredient for neural changes in pitch encoding to be observed throughout human development. These findings contribute to the neurophysiological understanding of long- and short-term experience-dependent modulation of pitch.
- pitch encoding
- experience-dependent plasticity
- auditory training
- frequency-following response
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