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Brain. 1992 Dec;115 ( Pt 6):1753-68.

The anatomy of phonological and semantic processing in normal subjects.

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  • 1INSERM U 230, Hôpital Purpan, Toulouse, France.


We assessed brain activation of nine normal right-handed volunteers in a positron emission tomography study designed to differentiate the functional anatomy of the two major components of auditory comprehension of language, namely phonological versus lexico-semantic processing. The activation paradigm included three tasks. In the reference task, subjects were asked to detect rising pitch within a series of pure tones. In the phonological task, they had to monitor the sequential phonemic organization of non-words. In the lexico-semantic task, they monitored concrete nouns according to semantic criteria. We found highly significant and different patterns of activation. Phonological processing was associated with activation in the left superior temporal gyrus (mainly Wernicke's area) and, to a lesser extent, in Broca's area and in the right superior temporal regions. Lexico-semantic processing was associated with activity in the left middle and inferior temporal gyri, the left inferior parietal region and the left superior prefrontal region, in addition to the superior temporal regions. A comparison of the pattern of activation obtained with the lexico-semantic task to that obtained with the phonological task was made in order to account for the contribution of lower stage components to semantic processing. No difference in activation was found in Broca's area and superior temporal areas which suggests that these areas are activated by the phonological component of both tasks, but activation was noted in the temporal, parietal and frontal multi-modal association areas. These constitute parts of a large network that represent the specific anatomic substrate of the lexico-semantic processing of language.

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