Reconstructing Voice Identity from Noninvasive Auditory Cortex Recordings

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    This study used deep neural networks (DNN) to reconstruct voice information (viz., speaker identity), from fMRI responses in the auditory cortex and temporal voice areas, and assessed the representational content in these areas with decoding. A DNN-derived feature space approximated the neural representation of speaker identity-related information. While some of the neural decoding results are valuable, the overall evidence for general representational and computational principles is incomplete as the results rely on a very specific model architecture.

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The cerebral processing of voice information is known to engage, in human as well as non-human primates, “temporal voice areas” (TVAs) that respond preferentially to conspecific vocalizations. However, how voice information is represented by neuronal populations in these areas, particularly speaker identity information, remains poorly understood. Here, we used a deep neural network (DNN) to generate a high-level, small-dimension representational space for voice identity—the ‘voice latent space’ (VLS)—and examined its linear relation with cerebral activity via encoding, representational similarity, and decoding analyses. We find that the VLS maps onto fMRI measures of cerebral activity in response to tens of thousands of voice stimuli from hundreds of different speaker identities and better accounts for the representational geometry for speaker identity in the TVAs than in A1. Moreover, the VLS allowed TVA-based reconstructions of voice stimuli that preserved essential aspects of speaker identity as assessed by both machine classifiers and human listeners. These results indicate that the DNN-derived VLS provides high-level representations of voice identity information in the TVAs.

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  1. Author response:

    Please find below our provisional author response, outlining the revisions we plan to undertake to address the Recommendations received:

    Reviewer #1 (Recommendations For The Authors):

    (1) A set of recent advances have shown that embeddings of unsupervised/self-supervised speech models aligned to auditory responses to speech in the temporal cortex (e.g. Wav2Vec2: Millet et al NeurIPS 2022; HuBERT: Li et al. Nat Neurosci 2023; Whisper: Goldstein et al. bioRxiv 2023). These models are known to preserve a variety of speech information (phonetics, linguistic information, emotions, speaker identity, etc) and perform well in a variety of downstream tasks. These other models should be evaluated or at least discussed in the study.

    We plan to evaluate two of these other models, Wav2Vec2 and HuBERT, in the brain encoding and RSA parts.

    (2) The test statistics of the results in Fig 1c-e need to be revised. Given that logistic regression is a convex optimization problem typically converging to a global optimum, these multiple initializations of the classifier were likely not entirely independent. Consequently, the reported degrees of freedom and the effect size estimates might not accurately reflect the true variability and independence of the classifier outcomes. A more careful evaluation of these aspects is necessary to ensure the statistical robustness of the results.

    We plan to address this point to ensure the statistical robustness of our results.

    (3) In Line 198, the authors discuss the number of dimensions used in their models. To provide a comprehensive comparison, it would be informative to include direct decoding results from the original spectrograms alongside those from the VLS and LIN models. Given the vast diversity in vocal speech characteristics, it is plausible that the speaker identities might correlate with specific speech-related features also represented in both the auditory cortex and the VLS. Therefore, a clearer understanding of the original distribution of voice identities in the untransformed auditory space would be beneficial. This addition would help ascertain the extent to which transformations applied by the VLS or LIN models might be capturing or obscuring relevant auditory information.

    We plan to include direct decoding results from the original spectrograms in addition from the VLS and LIN models.

    Reviewer #2 (Recommendations For The Authors):

    We plan to address the following points raised by Reviewer #2:

    (1) English mistakes, rewordings:

    a. L31: 'in voice' > consider rewording (from a voice?).

    b. L33: consider splitting sentence (after interactions).

    c. L39: 'brain' after parentheses.

    d. L45-: certainly DNNs 'as a powerful tool' extend to audio (not just image and video) beyond their use in brain models.

    e. L52: listened to / heard.

    f. L63: use second/s consistently.

    g. L64: the reference to Figure 5D is maybe a bit confusing here in the introduction.

    h. L79-88: this section is formulated in a way that is too detailed for the introduction text (confusing to read). Consider a more general introduction to the VLS concept here and the details of this study later.

    i. L99-: again, I think the experimental details are best saved for later. It's good to provide a feel for the analysis pipeline here, but some of the details provided (number of averages, denoising, preprocessing), are anyway too unspecific to allow the reader to fully follow the analysis.

    We will correct the mistakes, apply the suggested rewordings, and clarify the points raised.

    (2) Clarification.

    • L159: what was the motivation for classifying age as a 2-class classification problem? Rather than more classes or continuous prediction? How did you choose the age split?
    • L263: Is the test of RDM correlation>0 corrected for multiple comparisons across ROIs, subjects, and models?
    • L379: 'these stimuli' - weren't the experimental stimuli different from those used to train the V/AE?
    • L443: what are 'technical issues' that prevented subject 3 from participating in 48 runs??
    • L444: participants were instructed to 'stay in the scanner'!? Do you mean 'stay still', or something?
    • L463: Hearing thresholds of 15 dB: do you mean that all had thresholds lower than 15 dB at all frequencies and at all repeated audiogram measurements?
    • L472: were the 4 category levels balanced across the dataset (in number of occurrences of each category combination)?
    • L482: the test stimuli were selected as having high energy by the amplitude envelope. It is unclear what this means (how is the envelope extracted, what feature of it is used to measure 'high energy'?)
    • L500 was the audio filtered to account for the transfer function of the Sensimetrics headphones?
    • L500: what does 'comfortable level' correspond to and was it set per session (i.e. did it vary across sessions)?
    • L526- does the normalization imply that the reconstructed spectrograms are normalized? Were the reconstructions then scaled to undo the normalization before inversion?
    • L606: does the identity GLM model the denoised betas from the first GLM or simply the BOLD data? The text indicates the latter, but I suspect the former.
    • L704: could you unpack this a bit more? It is not easy to see why you specify the summing in the objective. Shouldn't this just be the ridge objective for a given voxel/ROI? Then you could just state it in matrix notation.
    • L716: you used robust scaling for the classifications in latent space but haven't mentioned scaling here. Are we to assume that the same applies?
    • L720: Pearson correlation as a performance metric and its variance will depend on the choice of test/train split sizes. Can you show that the results generalize beyond your specific choices? Maybe the report explained variance as well to get a better idea of performance.
    • Could you specify (somewhere) the stimulus timing in a run? ISI and stimulus duration are mentioned in different places, but it would be nice to have a summary of the temporal structure of runs.

    We will clarify the points raised.

    Reviewer #3 (Recommendations For The Authors):

    We plan to address the following points raised by Reviewer #3:


    • Code and data are not currently available.
    • In the supplementary material, it would be beneficial to present the different analyses as boxplots, as in the main text, but with the ROIs in the left and right hemispheres separated, to better show potential hemispheric effect. Although this information is available in the Supplementary Tables, it is currently quite tedious to access it.
    • In Figure 3a, it might be beneficial to order the identities by age for each gender in order to more clearly illustrate the structure of the RDMs,
    • In Figure 3b, the variance for the correlations for the aTVA is higher than in other regions, why?
    • Please make sure that all acronyms are defined, and that they are redefined in the figure legends.
    • Gender and age are primarily encoded by different brain regions (Figure 5, pTVA vs aTVA). How does this finding compare with existing literature?

    We will upload the code and the preprocessed data; improve the supplementary material figures; Fix Figure 3 according to the Reviewer’s suggestion, and clarify the points raised.

  2. eLife assessment

    This study used deep neural networks (DNN) to reconstruct voice information (viz., speaker identity), from fMRI responses in the auditory cortex and temporal voice areas, and assessed the representational content in these areas with decoding. A DNN-derived feature space approximated the neural representation of speaker identity-related information. While some of the neural decoding results are valuable, the overall evidence for general representational and computational principles is incomplete as the results rely on a very specific model architecture.

  3. Reviewer #1 (Public Review):


    In this study, the authors trained a variational autoencoder (VAE) to create a high-dimensional "voice latent space" (VLS) using extensive voice samples, and analyzed how this space corresponds to brain activity through fMRI studies focusing on the temporal voice areas (TVAs). Their analyses included encoding and decoding techniques, as well as representational similarity analysis (RSA), which showed that the VLS could effectively map onto and predict brain activity patterns, allowing for the reconstruction of voice stimuli that preserve key aspects of speaker identity.


    This paper is well-written and easy to follow. Most of the methods and results were clearly described. The authors combined a variety of analytical methods in neuroimaging studies, including encoding, decoding, and RSA. In addition to commonly used DNN encoding analysis, the authors performed DNN decoding and resynthesized the stimuli using VAE decoders. Furthermore, in addition to machine learning classifiers, the authors also included human behavioral tests to evaluate the reconstruction performance.


    This manuscript presents a variational autoencoder (VAE) to evaluate voice identity representations from brain recordings. However, the study's scope is limited by testing only one model, leaving unclear how generalizable or impactful the findings are. The preservation of identity-related information in the voice latent space (VLS) is expected, given the VAE model's design to reconstruct original vocal stimuli. Nonetheless, the study lacks a deeper investigation into what specific aspects of auditory coding these latent dimensions represent. The results in Figure 1c-e merely tested a very limited set of speech features. Moreover, there is no analysis of how these features and the whole VAE model perform in standard speech tasks like speech recognition or phoneme recognition. It is not clear what kind of computations the VAE model presented in this work is capable of. Inclusion of comparisons with state-of-the-art unsupervised or self-supervised speech models known for their alignment with auditory cortical responses, such as Wav2Vec2, HuBERT, and Whisper, would strengthen the validation of the VAE model and provide insights into its relative capabilities and limitations.

    The claim that the VLS outperforms a linear model (LIN) in decoding tasks does not significantly advance our understanding of the underlying brain representations. Given the complexity of auditory processing, it is unsurprising that a nonlinear model would outperform a simpler linear counterpart. The study could be improved by incorporating a comparative analysis with alternative models that differ in architecture, computational strategies, or training methods. Such comparisons could elucidate specific features or capabilities of the VLS, offering a more nuanced understanding of its effectiveness and the computational principles it embodies. This approach would allow the authors to test specific hypotheses about how different aspects of the model contribute to its performance, providing a clearer picture of the shared coding in VLS and the brain.

    The manuscript overlooks some crucial alternative explanations for the discriminant representation of vocal identity. For instance, the discriminant representation of vocal identity can be either a higher-level abstract representation or a lower-level coding of pitch height. Prior studies using fMRI and ECoG have identified both types of representation within the superior temporal gyrus (STG) (e.g., Tang et al., Science 2017; Feng et al., NeuroImage 2021). Additionally, the methodology does not clarify whether the stimuli from different speakers contained identical speech content. If the speech content varied across speakers, the approach of averaging trials to obtain a mean vector for each speaker-the "identity-based analysis"-may not adequately control for confounding acoustic-phonetic features. Notably, the principal component 2 (PC2) in Figure 1b appears to correlate with absolute pitch height, suggesting that some aspects of the model's effectiveness might be attributed to simpler acoustic properties rather than complex identity-specific information.

    Methodologically, there are issues that warrant attention. In characterizing the autoencoder latent space, the authors initialized logistic regression classifiers 100 times and calculated the t-statistics using degrees of freedom (df) of 99. Given that logistic regression is a convex optimization problem typically converging to a global optimum, these multiple initializations of the classifier were likely not entirely independent. Consequently, the reported degrees of freedom and the effect size estimates might not accurately reflect the true variability and independence of the classifier outcomes. A more careful evaluation of these aspects is necessary to ensure the statistical robustness of the results.

  4. Reviewer #2 (Public Review):


    Lamothe et al. collected fMRI responses to many voice stimuli in 3 subjects. The authors trained two different autoencoders on voice audio samples and predicted latent space embeddings from the fMRI responses, allowing the voice spectrograms to be reconstructed. The degree to which reconstructions from different auditory ROIs correctly represented speaker identity, gender, or age was assessed by machine classification and human listener evaluations. Complementing this, the representational content was also assessed using representational similarity analysis. The results broadly concur with the notion that temporal voice areas are sensitive to different types of categorical voice information.


    The single-subject approach that allows thousands of responses to unique stimuli to be recorded and analyzed is powerful. The idea of using this approach to probe cortical voice representations is strong and the experiment is technically solid.


    The paper could benefit from more discussion of the assumptions behind the reconstruction analyses and the conclusions it allows. The authors write that reconstruction of a stimulus from brain responses represents 'a robust test of the adequacy of models of brain activity' (L138). I concur that stimulus reconstruction is useful for evaluating the nature of representations, but the notion that they can test the adequacy of the specific autoencoder presented here as a model of brain activity should be discussed at more length. Natural sounds are correlated in many feature dimensions and can therefore be summarized in several ways, and similar information can be read out from different model representations. Models trained to reconstruct natural stimuli can exploit many correlated features and it is quite possible that very different models based on different features can be used for similar reconstructions. Reconstructability does not by itself imply that the model is an accurate brain model. Non-linear networks trained on natural stimuli are arguably not tested in the same rigorous manner as models built to explicitly account for computations (they can generate predictions and experiments can be designed to test those predictions). While it is true that there is increasing evidence that neural network embeddings can predict brain data well, it is still a matter of debate whether good predictability by itself qualifies DNNs as 'plausible computational models for investigating brain processes' (L72). This concern is amplified in the context of decoding and naturalistic stimuli where many correlated features can be represented in many ways. It is unclear how much the results hinge on the specificities of the specific autoencoder architectures used. For instance, it would be useful to know the motivations for why the specific VAE used here should constitute a good model for probing neural voice representations.

    Relatedly, it is not clear how VAEs as generative models are motivated as computational models of voice representations in the brain. The task of voice areas in the brain is not to generate voice stimuli but to discriminate and extract information. The task of reconstructing an input spectrogram is perhaps useful for probing information content, but discriminative models, e.g., trained on the task of discriminating voices, would seem more obvious candidates. Why not include discriminatively trained models for comparison?

    The autoencoder learns a mapping from latent space to well-formed voice spectrograms. Regularized regression then learns a mapping between this latent space and activity space. All reconstructions might sound 'natural', which simply means that the autoencoder works. It would be good to have a stronger test of how close the reconstructions are to the original stimulus. For instance, is the reconstruction the closest stimulus to the original in latent space coordinates out of using the experimental stimuli, or where does it rank? How do small changes in beta amplitudes impact the reconstruction? The effective dimensionality of the activity space could be estimated, e.g. by PCA of the voice samples' contrast maps, and it could then be estimated how the main directions in the activity space map to differences in latent space. It would be good to get a better grasp of the granularity of information that can be decoded/ reconstructed.

    What can we make of the apparent trend that LIN is higher than VLS for identity classification (at least VLS does not outperform LIN)? A general argument of the paper seems to be that VLS is a better model of voice representations compared to LIN as a 'control' model. Then we would expect VLS to perform better on identity classification. The age and gender of a voice can likely be classified from many acoustic features that may not require dedicated voice processing.

    The RDM results reported are significant only for some subjects and in some ROIs. This presumably means that results are not significant in the other subjects. Yet, the authors assert general conclusions (e.g. the VLS better explains RDM in TVA than LIN). An assumption typically made in single-subject studies (with large amounts of data in individual subjects) is that the effects observed and reported in papers are robust in individual subjects. More than one subject is usually included to hint that this is the case. This is an intriguing approach. However, reports of effects that are statistically significant in some subjects and some ROIs are difficult to interpret. This, in my view, runs contrary to the logic and leverage of the single-subject approach. Reporting results that are only significant in 1 out of 3 subjects and inferring general conclusions from this seems less convincing.

    The first main finding is stated as being that '128 dimensions are sufficient to explain a sizeable portion of the brain activity' (L379). What qualifies this? From my understanding, only models of that dimensionality were tested. They explain a sizeable portion of brain activity, but it is difficult to follow what 'sizable' is without baseline models that estimate a prediction floor and ceiling. For instance, would autoencoders that reconstruct any spectrogram (not just voice) also predict a sizable portion of the measured activity? What happens to reconstruction results as the dimensionality is varied?

    A second main finding is stated as being that the 'VLS outperforms the LIN space' (L381). It seems correct that the VAE yields more natural-sounding reconstructions, but this is a technical feature of the chosen autoencoding approach. That the VLS yields a 'more brain-like representational space' I assume refers to the RDM results where the RDM correlations were mainly significant in one subject. For classification, the performance of features from the reconstructions (age/ gender/ identity) gives results that seem more mixed, and it seems difficult to draw a general conclusion about the VLS being better. It is not clear that this general claim is well supported.

    It is not clear why the RDM was not formed based on the 'stimulus GLM' betas. The 'identity GLM' is already biased towards identity and it would be stronger to show associations at the stimulus level.

    Multiple comparisons were performed across ROIs, models, subjects, and features in the classification analyses, but it is not clear how correction for these multiple comparisons was implemented in the statistical tests on classification accuracies.

    Risks of overfitting and bias are a recurrent challenge in stimulus reconstruction with fMRI. It would be good with more control analyses to ensure that this was not the case. For instance, how were the repeated test stimuli presented? Were they intermingled with the other stimuli used for training or presented in separate runs? If intermingled, then the training and test data would have been preprocessed together, which could compromise the test set. The reconstructions could be performed on responses from independent runs, preprocessed separately, as a control. This should include all preprocessing, for instance, estimating stimulus/identity GLMs on separately processed run pairs rather than across all runs. Also, it would be good to avoid detrending before GLM denoising (or at least testing its effects) as these can interact.

  5. Reviewer #3 (Public Review):


    In this manuscript, Lamothe et al. sought to identify the neural substrates of voice identity in the human brain by correlating fMRI recordings with the latent space of a variational autoencoder (VAE) trained on voice spectrograms. They used encoding and decoding models, and showed that the "voice" latent space (VLS) of the VAE performs, in general, (slightly) better than a linear autoencoder's latent space. Additionally, they showed dissociations in the encoding of voice identity across the temporal voice areas.


    - The geometry of the neural representations of voice identity has not been studied so far. Previous studies on the content of speech and faces in vision suggest that such geometry could exist. This study demonstrates this point systematically, leveraging a specifically trained variational autoencoder.

    - The size of the voice dataset and the length of the fMRI recordings ensure that the findings are robust.


    - Overall, the VLS is often only marginally better than the linear model across analysis, raising the question of whether the observed performance improvements are due to the higher number of parameters trained in the VAE, rather than the non-linearity itself. A fair comparison would necessitate that the number of parameters be maintained consistently across both models, at least as an additional verification step.

    - The encoding and RSM results are quite different. This is unexpected, as similar embedding geometries between the VLS and the brain activations should be reflected by higher correlation values of the encoding model.

    - The consistency across participants is not particularly high, for instance, S1 seemed to have demonstrated excellent performances, while S2 showed poor performance.

    - An important control analysis would be to compare the decoding results with those obtained by a decoder operating directly on the latent spaces, in order to further highlight the interest of the non-linear transformations of the decoder model. Currently, it is unclear whether the non-linearity of the decoder improves the decoding performance, considering the poor resemblance between the VLS and brain-reconstructed spectrograms.