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Neuropsychologia. 2012 Sep;50(11):2625-35. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.07.014. Epub 2012 Jul 20.

The role of the striatum in sentence processing: disentangling syntax from working memory in Huntington's disease.

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INSERM U955, Equipe 1, Neuropsychologie Interventionnelle, IMRB, Créteil, France.


The role of sub-cortical structures in language processing remains controversial. In particular, it is unclear whether the striatum subserves language-specific processes such as syntax or whether it solely affects language performance via its significant role in executive functioning and/or working memory. Here, in order to address this issue, we attempted to equalize working memory constraints while varying syntactic complexity, to study sentence comprehension in 15 patients with striatal damage, namely Huntington's disease at early stage, and in 15 healthy controls. More particularly, we manipulated the syntactic relation between a name and a pronoun while holding the distance between them constant. We exploited a formal principle of syntactic theory called Principle C. This principle states that whereas in a sentence such as "Paul smiled when he entered" Paul and he can be a single person, this interpretation is blocked in sentences such as "He smiled when Paul entered". In a second experiment we varied working memory load using noun-adjective gender agreement in center-embedded and right-branching relatives (e.g., "the girl who watches the dog is green" vs. "the girl watches the dog which is green"). The results show that HD patients correctly establish name-pronoun co-reference but they fail to block it when Principle C should apply. Furthermore, they have good performance with both center-embedded and right-branching relatives, suggesting that their difficulties in sentence comprehension do not arise from memory load impairment during sentence processing. Taken together, our findings indicate that the striatum holds a genuine role in syntactic processing, which cannot be reduced to its involvement in working memory. However, it only impacts on particular aspects of syntax that may relate to complex computations whereas other operations appear to be preserved. Hypotheses about the role of the striatum in syntactic processing are discussed.

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