Neuroanatomical distinctions within the semantic system during sentence comprehension: evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging

Date Published:

2008 Mar 01


To make sense of a sentence, we must compute morphosyntactic and semantic-thematic relationships between its verbs and arguments and evaluate the resulting propositional meaning against any preceding context and our real-world knowledge. Recent electrophysiological studies suggest that, in comparison with non-violated verbs (e.g. " breakfast the boys would eat..."), animacy semantic-thematically violated verbs (e.g. " breakfast the eggs would eat...") and morphosyntactically violated verbs (e.g. " breakfast the boys would eats...") evoke a similar neural response. This response is distinct from that evoked by verbs that only violate real-world knowledge (e.g. " breakfast the boys would plant..."). Here we used fMRI to examine the neuroanatomical regions engaged in response to these three violations. Real-world violations, relative to other sentence types, led to increased activity within the left anterior inferior frontal cortex, reflecting participants' increased and prolonged efforts to retrieve semantic knowledge about the likelihood of events occurring in the real world. In contrast, animacy semantic-thematic violations of the actions depicted by the central verbs engaged a frontal/inferior parietal/basal ganglia network known to mediate the execution and comprehension of goal-directed action. We suggest that the recruitment of this network reflected a semantic-thematic combinatorial process that involved an attempt to determine whether the actions described by the verbs could be executed by their NP Agents. Intriguingly, this network was also activated to morphosyntactic violations between the verbs and their subject NP arguments. Our findings support the pattern of electrophysiological findings in suggesting (a) that a clear division within the semantic system plays out during sentence comprehension, and (b) that semantic-thematic and syntactic violations of verbs within simple active sentences are treated similarly by the brain.

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