The role of primate frontal cortex in vocal communication and its significance in language evolution have a controversial history. While evidence indicates that vocalization processing occurs in ventrolateral prefrontal cortex neurons, vocal-motor activity has been conjectured to be primarily subcortical and suggestive of a distinctly different neural architecture from humans. Direct evidence of neural activity during natural vocal communication is limited, as previous studies were performed in chair-restrained animals. Here we recorded the activity of single neurons across multiple regions of prefrontal and premotor cortex while freely moving marmosets engaged in a natural vocal behavior known as antiphonal calling. Our aim was to test whether neurons in marmoset frontal cortex exhibited responses during vocal-signal processing and/or vocal-motor production in the context of active, natural communication. We observed motor-related changes in single neuron activity during vocal production, but relatively weak sensory responses for vocalization processing during this natural behavior. Vocal-motor responses occurred both prior to and during call production and were typically coupled to the timing of each vocalization pulse. Despite the relatively weak sensory responses a population classifier was able to distinguish between neural activity that occurred during presentations of vocalization stimuli that elicited an antiphonal response and those that did not. These findings are suggestive of the role that nonhuman primate frontal cortex neurons play in natural communication and provide an important foundation for more explicit tests of the functional contributions of these neocortical areas during vocal behaviors.
Cory T. Miller, A. Wren Thomas, Samuel U. Nummela, and Lisa A. de la Mothe "Responses of primate frontal cortex neurons during natural vocal communication" Journal of Neurophysiology 2015 114:2, 1158-1171