Selective attention and speech processing in the cortex
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In noisy and complex environments, human listeners must segregate the mixture of sound sources arriving at their ears and selectively attend a single source, thereby solving a computationally difficult problem called the cocktail party problem. However, the neural mechanisms underlying these computations are still largely a mystery. Oscillatory synchronization of neuronal activity between cortical areas is thought to provide a crucial role in facilitating information transmission between spatially separated populations of neurons, enabling the formation of functional networks. In this thesis, we seek to analyze and model the functional neuronal networks underlying attention to speech stimuli and find that the Frontal Eye Fields play a central 'hub' role in the auditory spatial attention network in a cocktail party experiment. We use magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure neural signals with high temporal precision, while sampling from the whole cortex. However, several methodological issues arise when undertaking functional connectivity analysis with MEG data. Specifically, volume conduction of electrical and magnetic fields in the brain complicates interpretation of results. We compare several approaches through simulations, and analyze the trade-offs among various measures of neural phase-locking in the presence of volume conduction. We use these insights to study functional networks in a cocktail party experiment. We then construct a linear dynamical system model of neural responses to ongoing speech. Using this model, we are able to correctly predict which of two speakers is being attended by a listener. We then apply this model to data from a task where people were attending to stories with synchronous and scrambled videos of the speakers' faces to explore how the presence of visual information modifies the underlying neuronal mechanisms of speech perception. This model allows us to probe neural processes as subjects listen to long stimuli, without the need for a trial-based experimental design. We model the neural activity with latent states, and model the neural noise spectrum and functional connectivity with multivariate autoregressive dynamics, along with impulse responses for external stimulus processing. We also develop a new regularized Expectation-Maximization (EM) algorithm to fit this model to electroencephalography (EEG) data.