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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Oct 11;113(41):E6256-E6262. Epub 2016 Sep 26.

Neural correlate of the construction of sentence meaning.

Author information

1
Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115; Department of Psychiatry, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA 02114; evelina.fedorenko@mgh.harvard.edu ngk@mit.edu.
2
Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215.
3
National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, Albany, NY 12208; Department of Neurology, Albany Medical College, Albany, NY 12208.
4
National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, Albany, NY 12208; Department of Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY 12222.
5
Brain & Cognitive Sciences Department, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139.
6
National Center for Adaptive Neurotechnologies, Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health, Albany, NY 12208; Department of Neurology, Albany Medical College, Albany, NY 12208; Department of Biomedical Sciences, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY 12222.
7
Brain & Cognitive Sciences Department, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139 evelina.fedorenko@mgh.harvard.edu ngk@mit.edu.

Abstract

The neural processes that underlie your ability to read and understand this sentence are unknown. Sentence comprehension occurs very rapidly, and can only be understood at a mechanistic level by discovering the precise sequence of underlying computational and neural events. However, we have no continuous and online neural measure of sentence processing with high spatial and temporal resolution. Here we report just such a measure: intracranial recordings from the surface of the human brain show that neural activity, indexed by γ-power, increases monotonically over the course of a sentence as people read it. This steady increase in activity is absent when people read and remember nonword-lists, despite the higher cognitive demand entailed, ruling out accounts in terms of generic attention, working memory, and cognitive load. Response increases are lower for sentence structure without meaning ("Jabberwocky" sentences) and word meaning without sentence structure (word-lists), showing that this effect is not explained by responses to syntax or word meaning alone. Instead, the full effect is found only for sentences, implicating compositional processes of sentence understanding, a striking and unique feature of human language not shared with animal communication systems. This work opens up new avenues for investigating the sequence of neural events that underlie the construction of linguistic meaning.

KEYWORDS:

ECoG; compositionality; language; semantics; syntax

PMID:
27671642
PMCID:
PMC5068329
DOI:
10.1073/pnas.1612132113
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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