The N400 event-related brain potential is elicited by each word in a sentence and offers an important window into the mechanisms of real-time language comprehension. Since the 1980s, studies investigating the N400 have expanded our understanding of how bottom-up linguistic inputs interact with top-down contextual constraints. More recently, a growing body of computational modeling research has aimed to formalize theoretical accounts of the N400 to better understand the neural and functional basis of this component. Here, we provide a comprehensive review of this literature. We discuss “word-level” models that focus on the N400’s sensitivity to lexical factors and simple priming manipulations, as well as more recent sentence-level models that explain its sensitivity to broader context. We discuss each model’s insights and limitations in relation to a set of cognitive and biological constraints that have informed our understanding of language comprehension and the N400 over the past few decades. We then review a novel computational model of the N400 that is based on the principles of predictive coding, which can accurately simulate both word-level and sentence-level phenomena. In this predictive coding account, the N400 is conceptualized as the magnitude of lexico-semantic prediction error produced by incoming words during the process of inferring their meaning. Finally, we highlight important directions for future research, including a discussion of how these computational models can be expanded to explain language-related ERP effects outside the N400 time window, and variation in N400 modulation across different populations.
In people with schizophrenia and related disorders, impairments in communication and social functioning can negatively impact social interactions and quality of life. In the present study, we investigated the cognitive basis of a specific aspect of linguistic communication—lexical alignment— in people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. We probed lexical alignment as participants played a collaborative picture-naming game with the experimenter, in which the two players alternated between naming a dual-name picture (e.g., rabbit/bunny) and listening to their partner name a picture. We found evidence of lexical alignment in all three groups, with no differences between the patient groups and the controls. We argue that these typical patterns of lexical alignment in patients were supported by preserved—and in some cases increased—bottom-up mechanisms, which balanced out impairments in top-down perspective-taking.