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J Neurosci. 2008 Nov 19;28(47):12224-30. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3579-08.2008.

The sound of concepts: four markers for a link between auditory and conceptual brain systems.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Ulm, 89075 Ulm, Germany.


Traditionally, concepts are conceived as abstract mental entities distinct from perceptual or motor brain systems. However, recent results let assume modality-specific representations of concepts. The ultimate test for grounding concepts in perception requires the fulfillment of the following four markers: conceptual processing during (1) an implicit task should activate (2) a perceptual region (3) rapidly and (4) selectively. Here, we show using functional magnetic resonance imaging and recordings of event-related potentials, that acoustic conceptual features recruit auditory brain areas even when implicitly presented through visual words. Fulfilling the four markers, the findings of our study unequivocally link the auditory and conceptual brain systems: recognition of words denoting objects, for which acoustic features are highly relevant (e.g.,"telephone"), ignited cell assemblies in posterior superior and middle temporal gyri (pSTG/MTG) within 150 ms that were also activated by sound perception. Importantly, activity within a cluster of pSTG/MTG increased selectively as a function of acoustic, but not of visual and action-related feature relevance. The implicitness of the conceptual task, the selective modulation of left pSTG/MTG activity by acoustic feature relevance, the early onset of this activity at 150 ms and its anatomical overlap with perceptual sound processing are four markers for a modality-specific representation of auditory conceptual features in left pSTG/MTG. Our results therefore provide the first direct evidence for a link between perceptual and conceptual acoustic processing. They demonstrate that access to concepts involves a partial reinstatement of brain activity during the perception of objects.

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