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Cereb Cortex. 2009 Jul;19(7):1493-503. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn187. Epub 2008 Nov 10.

Retrieval and unification of syntactic structure in sentence comprehension: an FMRI study using word-category ambiguity.

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F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging, Nijmegen, the Netherlands.


Sentence comprehension requires the retrieval of single word information from long-term memory, and the integration of this information into multiword representations. The current functional magnetic resonance imaging study explored the hypothesis that the left posterior temporal gyrus supports the retrieval of lexical-syntactic information, whereas left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) contributes to syntactic unification. Twenty-eight subjects read sentences and word sequences containing word-category (noun-verb) ambiguous words at critical positions. Regions contributing to the syntactic unification process should show enhanced activation for sentences compared to words, and only within sentences display a larger signal for ambiguous than unambiguous conditions. The posterior LIFG showed exactly this predicted pattern, confirming our hypothesis that LIFG contributes to syntactic unification. The left posterior middle temporal gyrus was activated more for ambiguous than unambiguous conditions (main effect over both sentences and word sequences), as predicted for regions subserving the retrieval of lexical-syntactic information from memory. We conclude that understanding language involves the dynamic interplay between left inferior frontal and left posterior temporal regions.

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