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Understanding in an instant: Neurophysiological evidence for mechanistic language circuits in the brain

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      Abstract

      How long does it take the human mind to grasp the idea when hearing or reading a sentence? Neurophysiological methods looking directly at the time course of brain activity indexes of comprehension are critical for finding the answer to this question. As the dominant cognitive approaches, models of serial/cascaded and parallel processing, make conflicting predictions on the time course of psycholinguistic information access, they can be tested using neurophysiological brain activation recorded in MEG and EEG experiments. Seriality and cascading of lexical, semantic and syntactic processes receives support from late (latency ∼1/2 s) sequential neurophysiological responses, especially N400 and P600. However, parallelism is substantiated by early near-simultaneous brain indexes of a range of psycholinguistic processes, up to the level of semantic access and context integration, emerging already 100–250 ms after critical stimulus information is present. Crucially, however, there are reliable latency differences of 20–50 ms between early cortical area activations reflecting lexical, semantic and syntactic processes, which are left unexplained by current serial and parallel brain models of language. We here offer a mechanistic model grounded in cortical nerve cell circuits that builds upon neuroanatomical and neurophysiological knowledge and explains both near-simultaneous activations and fine-grained delays. A key concept is that of discrete distributed cortical circuits with specific inter-area topographies. The full activation, or ignition, of specifically distributed binding circuits explains the near-simultaneity of early neurophysiological indexes of lexical, syntactic and semantic processing. Activity spreading within circuits determined by between-area conduction delays accounts for comprehension-related regional activation differences in the millisecond range.

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      In the present article, the basic research using the mismatch negativity (MMN) and analogous results obtained by using the magnetoencephalography (MEG) and other brain-imaging technologies is reviewed. This response is elicited by any discriminable change in auditory stimulation but recent studies extended the notion of the MMN even to higher-order cognitive processes such as those involving grammar and semantic meaning. Moreover, MMN data also show the presence of automatic intelligent processes such as stimulus anticipation at the level of auditory cortex. In addition, the MMN enables one to establish the brain processes underlying the initiation of attention switch to, conscious perception of, sound change in an unattended stimulus stream.
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          Somatotopic representation of action words in human motor and premotor cortex.

          Since the early days of research into language and the brain, word meaning was assumed to be processed in specific brain regions, which most modern neuroscientists localize to the left temporal lobe. Here we use event-related fMRI to show that action words referring to face, arm, or leg actions (e.g., to lick, pick, or kick), when presented in a passive reading task, differentially activated areas along the motor strip that either were directly adjacent to or overlapped with areas activated by actual movement of the tongue, fingers, or feet. These results demonstrate that the referential meaning of action words has a correlate in the somatotopic activation of motor and premotor cortex. This rules out a unified "meaning center" in the human brain and supports a dynamic view according to which words are processed by distributed neuronal assemblies with cortical topographies that reflect word semantics.
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            Author and article information

            Affiliations
            Medical Research Council, Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, 15 Chaucer Road, Cambridge, UK
            Author notes
            [* ]Corresponding author. Fax: +44 1223 359062. friedemann.pulvermuller@ 123456mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk
            Contributors
            Journal
            Brain Lang
            Brain and Language
            Academic Press
            0093-934X
            1090-2155
            August 2009
            August 2009
            : 110
            : 2
            : 81-94
            2734884
            19664815
            YBRLN3691
            10.1016/j.bandl.2008.12.001
            © 2009 Elsevier Inc.

            This document may be redistributed and reused, subject to certain conditions.

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