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Cereb Cortex. 2000 Jul;10(7):698-705.

Segregating semantic and syntactic aspects of processing in the human brain: an fMRI investigation of different word types.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, D-04303 Leipzig, Germany.


The processing of single words that varied in their semantic (concrete/abstract word) and syntactic (content/function word) status was investigated under different task demands (semantic/ syntactic task) in an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment. Task demands to a large degree determined which subparts of the neuronal network supporting word processing were activated. Semantic task demands selectively activated the left pars triangularis of the inferior frontal gyrus (BA 45) and the posterior part of the left middle/superior temporal gyrus (BA 21/22/37). In contrast, syntactic processing requirements led to an increased activation in the inferior tip of the left frontal operculum (BA 44) and the cortex lining the junction of the inferior frontal and inferior precentral sulcus (BA 44/6). Moreover, for these latter areas a word class by concreteness interaction was observed when a syntactic judgement was required. This interaction can be interpreted as a prototypicality effect: non-prototypical members of a word class, i.e. concrete function words and abstract content words, showed a larger activation than prototypical members, i.e. abstract function words and concrete content words. The combined data suggest that the activation pattern underlying word processing is predicted neither by syntactic class nor semantic concreteness but, rather, by task demands focusing either on semantic or syntactic aspects. Thus, our findings that semantic and syntactic aspects of processing are both functionally distinct and involve different subparts of the neuronal network underlying word processing support a domain-specific organization of the language system.

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