Objectives: Intonation may serve as a cue for facilitated recognition and processing of spoken words and it has been suggested that the pitch contour of spoken words is implicitly remembered. Thus, using the repetition suppression (RS) effect of BOLD-fMRI signals, we tested whether the same spoken words are differentially processed in language and auditory brain areas depending on whether or not they retain an arbitrary intonation pattern. Experimental design: Words were presented repeatedly in three blocks for passive and active listening tasks. There were three prosodic conditions in each of which a different set of words was used and specific task-irrelevant intonation changes were applied: (i) All words presented in a set flat monotonous pitch contour (ii) Each word had an arbitrary pitch contour that was set throughout the three repetitions. (iii) Each word had a different arbitrary pitch contour in each of its repetition. Principal findings: The repeated presentations of words with a set pitch contour, resulted in robust behavioral priming effects as well as in significant RS of the BOLD signals in primary auditory cortex (BA 41), temporal areas (BA 21 22) bilaterally and in Broca's area. However, changing the intonation of the same words on each successive repetition resulted in reduced behavioral priming and the abolition of RS effects. Conclusions: Intonation patterns are retained in memory even when the intonation is task-irrelevant. Implicit memory traces for the pitch contour of spoken words were reflected in facilitated neuronal processing in auditory and language associated areas. Thus, the results lend support for the notion that prosody and specifically pitch contour is strongly associated with the memory representation of spoken words.
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