Pulsed transcranial electric brain stimulation enhances speech comprehension

Ruhnau, Philipp orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-6546-7312, Rufener, Katharina S., Heinze, Hans-Jochen and Zaehle, Tino (2020) Pulsed transcranial electric brain stimulation enhances speech comprehension. Brain Stimulation, 13 (5). pp. 1402-1411. ISSN 1935861X

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brs.2020.07.011


Background: One key mechanism thought to underlie speech processing is the alignment of cortical brain rhythms to the acoustic input, a mechanism termed entrainment. Recent work showed that transcranial electrical stimulation (tES) in speech relevant frequencies or adapted to the speech envelope can in fact enhance speech processing. However, it is unclear whether an oscillatory tES is necessary, or if transients in the stimulation (e.g., peaks in the tES signal) at relevant times are sufficient.
Objective: In this study we used a novel pulsed-tES-protocol and tested behaviorally if a transiently pulsed - instead of a persistently oscillating - tES signal, can improve speech processing.
Methods: While subjects listened to spoken sentences embedded in noise, brief electric direct current pulses aligned to speech transients (syllable onsets) were applied to auditory cortex regions to modulate comprehension. Additionally, we modulated the temporal delay between tES-pulses and speech transients to test for periodic modulations of behavior, indicative of entrainment by tES.
Results: Speech comprehension was improved when tES-pulses were applied with a delay of 100 ms in respect to the speech transients. Contradictory to previous reports we find no periodic modulation of behavior. However, we find indications that periodic modulations can be spurious results of sampling behavioral data too coarsely.
Conclusions: Subject’s speech comprehension benefits from pulsed-tES, yet behavior is not modulated periodically. Thus, pulsed-tES can aid cortical entrainment to speech input, which is especially relevant in a noisy environment. Yet, pulsed-tES does not seem to entrain brain oscillations by itself.

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