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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2002;Suppl 35:36-62.

On the nature and evolution of the neural bases of human language.

Author information

  • 1Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912-1978, USA.
  • 2Brown U, Providence, RI

Abstract

The traditional theory equating the brain bases of language with Broca's and Wernicke's neocortical areas is wrong. Neural circuits linking activity in anatomically segregated populations of neurons in subcortical structures and the neocortex throughout the human brain regulate complex behaviors such as walking, talking, and comprehending the meaning of sentences. When we hear or read a word, neural structures involved in the perception or real-world associations of the word are activated as well as posterior cortical regions adjacent to Wernicke's area. Many areas of the neocortex and subcortical structures support the cortical-striatal-cortical circuits that confer complex syntactic ability, speech production, and a large vocabulary. However, many of these structures also form part of the neural circuits regulating other aspects of behavior. For example, the basal ganglia, which regulate motor control, are also crucial elements in the circuits that confer human linguistic ability and abstract reasoning. The cerebellum, traditionally associated with motor control, is active in motor learning. The basal ganglia are also key elements in reward-based learning. Data from studies of Broca's aphasia, Parkinson's disease, hypoxia, focal brain damage, and a genetically transmitted brain anomaly (the putative "language gene," family KE), and from comparative studies of the brains and behavior of other species, demonstrate that the basal ganglia sequence the discrete elements that constitute a complete motor act, syntactic process, or thought process. Imaging studies of intact human subjects and electrophysiologic and tracer studies of the brains and behavior of other species confirm these findings. As Dobzansky put it, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" (cited in Mayr, 1982). That applies with as much force to the human brain and the neural bases of language as it does to the human foot or jaw. The converse follows: the mark of evolution on the brains of human beings and other species provides insight into the evolution of the brain bases of human language. The neural substrate that regulated motor control in the common ancestor of apes and humans most likely was modified to enhance cognitive and linguistic ability. Speech communication played a central role in this process. However, the process that ultimately resulted in the human brain may have started when our earliest hominid ancestors began to walk.

PMID:
12653308
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

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