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Brain Res. 2012 Dec 7;1488:60-71. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2012.10.004. Epub 2012 Oct 5.

Abstract and concrete phrases processing differentially modulates cortico-spinal excitability.

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Department of Psychology, University of Bologna, Viale Berti Pichat 5, 40100 Bologna, Italy.


An important challenge of embodied theories is to explain the comprehension of abstract sentences. The aim of the present study was to scrutinize the role of the motor cortex in this process. We developed a new paradigm to study the abstract-concrete dimension by combining concrete (i.e., action-related) and abstract (i.e., non-action-related) verbs with nouns of graspable and non-graspable objects. Using these verb-noun combinations we performed a Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) on the left primary motor cortex while participants performed a sentence sensibility task. Single-TMS pulses were delivered 250ms after verb or noun presentation in each of four combinations of abstract and concrete verbs and nouns. To evaluate cortico-spinal excitability we registered the electromyographic activity of the right first dorsal interosseous muscle. As to verb-noun integration, analysis of motor evoked potentials (MEPs) after TMS pulse during noun presentation revealed greater peak-to-peak amplitude in phrases containing abstract rather than concrete verbs. Response times were also collected and showed that compatible (Concrete-Concrete and Abstract-Abstract) combinations were processed faster than mixed ones; moreover in combinations containing concrete verbs, participants were faster when the pulse was delivered on the first word (verb) than on the second one (noun). Results support previous findings showing early activation of hand-related areas after concrete verbs processing. The prolonged or delayed activation of the same areas by abstract verbs will be discussed in the framework of recent embodied theories based on multiple types of representation, particularly theories emphasizing the role of different acquisition mechanisms for concrete and abstract words (Borghi and Cimatti, 2009,2012).

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