Human speech is processed in an utterly different part of the brain than researchers have long supposed, claims a new study.
Scientists have long thought that human speech is processed towards the back of the brain's cerebral cortex, behind auditory cortex where all sounds are received - a place famously known as Wernicke's area after the German neurologist who proposed this site in the late 1800s based on his study of brain injuries and strokes.
But, now, research that analyzed more than 100 imaging studies concludes that Wernicke's area is in the wrong location.
The site newly identified is about 3 centimeters closer to the front of the brain and on the other side of auditory cortex - miles away in terms of brain architecture and function.
The finding, means that "textbooks will now have to be rewritten," said the study's senior author, Josef Rauschecker, Ph.D., a professor in the department of neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).
"We gave old theories that have long hung - a knockout punch," said Rauschecker, who is also a member of the Georgetown Institute for Cognitive and Computational Sciences.
"If you Google 'language organization in the brain,' probably every cartoon illustration out there is wrong," said lead author Iain DeWitt, a Ph.D. candidate in Georgetown's Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience.
The finding matters, Rauschecker said, because the new location of Wernicke's area matches that recently found in non-human primates, suggesting the origins of language between monkeys and humans is closer than many have thought, he asserted.
"Scientists have long argued that speech is unique to humans. They say monkeys make communication sounds but the fact that they don't have the same elaborate language that we do is due to different brain processing centers," Rauschecker said.
"This finding suggests the architecture and processing between the two species is more similar than many people thought."
Knowing that Wernicke's area is in the front of the auditory cortex could also provide clinical insights into patients suffering from brain damage, such as a stroke, or in disorders in speech comprehension.
"If a patient can't speak, or understand speech, we now have a good clue as to where damage has occurred," he said.
Rauschecker and DeWitt searched the peer-reviewed, scientific literature for studies that investigated auditory speech perception in humans using different scanning methods - either from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or positron emission tomography (PET).
They found 115 brain imaging studies of speech perception, which in total had included over 1,900 participants and generated over 800 brain coordinates for speech processing.
They then used a type of analysis that allowed them to measure the degree of agreement among brain coordinates from these studies.
The results pinpoint the location of Wernicke's area to be in the left temporal lobe, and specifically to be in the superior temporal gyrus, in front of the the primary auditory cortex.
This is the area that Rauschecker had found to be activated in his own studies of speech processing.
The study has been published online in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).