Speech signals contain information in hierarchical time scales, ranging from short-duration (e.g., phonemes) to long-duration cues (e.g., syllables, prosody). A theoretical framework to understand how the brain processes this hierarchy suggests that hemispheric lateralization enables specialized tracking of acoustic cues at different time scales, with the left and right hemispheres sampling at short (25 ms; 40 Hz) and long (200 ms; 5 Hz) periods, respectively. In adults, both speech-evoked and endogenous cortical rhythms are asymmetrical: low-frequency rhythms predominate in right auditory cortex, and high-frequency rhythms in left auditory cortex. It is unknown, however, whether endogenous resting state oscillations are similarly lateralized in children. We investigated cortical oscillations in children (3-5 years; N = 65) at rest and tested our hypotheses that this temporal asymmetry is evident early in life and facilitates recognition of speech in noise. We found a systematic pattern of increasing leftward asymmetry for higher frequency oscillations; this pattern was more pronounced in children who better perceived words in noise. The observed connection between left-biased cortical oscillations in phoneme-relevant frequencies and speech-in-noise perception suggests hemispheric specialization of endogenous oscillatory activity may support speech processing in challenging listening environments, and that this infrastructure is present during early childhood.
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