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Brain Res. 2008 Jul 7;1218:194-205. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2008.03.045. Epub 2008 Apr 1.

Automatic processing of semantic relations in fMRI: neural activation during semantic priming of taxonomic and thematic categories.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, RWTH Aachen University, Pauwelstr. 30, D-52074 Aachen, Germany.


Most current models of knowledge organization are based on hierarchical or taxonomic categories (animals, tools). Another important organizational pattern is thematic categorization, i.e. categories held together by external relations, a unifying scene or event (car and garage). The goal of this study was to compare the neural correlates of these categories under automatic processing conditions that minimize strategic influences. We used fMRI to examine neural correlates of semantic priming for category members with a short stimulus onset asynchrony (SOA) of 200 ms as subjects performed a lexical decision task. Four experimental conditions were compared: thematically related words (car-garage); taxonomically related (car-bus); unrelated (car-spoon); non-word trials (car-derf). We found faster reaction times for related than for unrelated prime-target pairs for both thematic and taxonomic categories. However, the size of the thematic priming effect was greater than that of the taxonomic. The imaging data showed signal changes for the taxonomic priming effects in the right precuneus, postcentral gyrus, middle frontal and superior frontal gyri and thematic priming effects in the right middle frontal gyrus and anterior cingulate. The contrast of neural priming effects showed larger signal changes in the right precuneus associated with the taxonomic but not with thematic priming response. We suggest that the greater involvement of precuneus in the processing of taxonomic relations indicates their reduced salience in the knowledge structure compared to more prominent thematic relations.

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