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Neuropsychologia. 2011 Feb;49(3):382-91. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.12.005. Epub 2010 Dec 13.

Conflict and cognitive control during sentence comprehension: recruitment of a frontal network during the processing of Spanish object-first sentences.

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Laboratory for Cognitive and Computational Neurosciences, Centre for Biomedical Technology, Technical University of Madrid and Complutense University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain.


During sentence processing there is a preference to treat the first noun phrase found as the subject and agent, unless marked the other way. This preference would lead to a conflict in thematic role assignment when the syntactic structure conforms to a non-canonical object-before-subject pattern. Left perisylvian and fronto-parietal brain networks have been found to be engaged by increased computational demands during sentence comprehension, while event-reated brain potentials have been used to study the on-line manifestation of these demands. However, evidence regarding the spatiotemporal organization of brain networks in this domain is scarce. In the current study we used Magnetoencephalography to track spatio-temporally brain activity while Spanish speakers were reading subject- and object-first cleft sentences. Both kinds of sentences remained ambiguous between a subject-first or an object-first interpretation up to the appearance of the second argument. Results show the time-modulation of a frontal network at the disambiguation point of object-first sentences. Moreover, the time windows where these effects took place have been previously related to thematic role integration (300-500 ms) and to sentence reanalysis and resolution of conflicts during processing (beyond 500 ms post-stimulus). These results point to frontal cognitive control as a putative key mechanism which may operate when a revision of the sentence structure and meaning is necessary.

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