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Poor discrimination of nonlinguistic sounds has been implicated in language-learning problems in children, but research evidence has been inconsistent. This study included 32 participants with specific language impairment (SLI) and 32 typically developing controls aged 7-16 years. Frequency discrimination thresholds were estimated in a task where participants had to distinguish a higher-frequency tone from a 1000 Hz tone. Neurophysiological responses were assessed in an oddball paradigm. Stimuli were either 1030 or 1200 Hz pure tones (deviants) presented in a series of standard 1000 Hz tones, or syllables (deviant [da] or [bi] in a series of standard /ba/). On the behavioral task, children (7- to 11-year-olds) had high thresholds, regardless of language status, but teenagers (12-16 years) with SLI had higher thresholds than their controls. Conventional analysis of electrophysiological responses showed no difference between groups for the mismatch negativity (MMN), but the late discriminative negativity (LDN) was reduced in amplitude for smaller deviants in participants with SLI. Time-frequency analysis revealed that, whereas the MMN reflected enhanced intertrial coherence in the theta frequency band, the LDN corresponded to a period of event-related desynchronization extending across a wide low-frequency band including delta, theta, and alpha. This manifested as a drop in power in those frequencies, which was marked in the controls but reduced or absent in children with SLI across all stimulus types. This provides compelling evidence for a low-level auditory perceptual impairment in SLI that affects a processing stage after initial detection of a sound change.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date





15578 - 15584


Acoustic Stimulation, Adolescent, Child, Cortical Synchronization, Evoked Potentials, Auditory, Female, Humans, Language Development Disorders, Male, Pilot Projects, Psychomotor Performance, Reaction Time, Speech Perception