Even though speech signals trigger coding in the cochlea to convey speech information to the central auditory structures, little is known about the neural mechanisms involved in such processes. The purpose of this study was to understand the encoding of formant cues and how it relates to vowel recognition in listeners. Neural representations of formants may differ across listeners; however, it was hypothesized that neural patterns could still predict vowel recognition. To test the hypothesis, the frequency-following response (FFR) and vowel recognition were obtained from 38 normal-hearing listeners using four different vowels, allowing direct comparisons between behavioral and neural data in the same individuals. FFR was employed because it provides an objective and physiological measure of neural activity that can reflect formant encoding. A mathematical model was used to describe vowel confusion patterns based on the neural responses to vowel formant cues. The major findings were (1) there were large variations in the accuracy of vowel formant encoding across listeners as indexed by the FFR, (2) these variations were systematically related to vowel recognition performance, and (3) the mathematical model of vowel identification was successful in predicting good vs poor vowel identification performers based exclusively on physiological data.

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