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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

March 2000, Vol. 12, No. 2, Pages 321-341
(doi: 10.1162/089892900562138)
© 2000 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Common and Distinct Neural Substrates for Pragmatic, Semantic, and Syntactic Processing of Spoken Sentences: An fMRI Study
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Extracting meaning from speech requires the use of pragmatic, semantic, and syntactic information. A central question is: Does the processing of these different types of linguistic information have common or distinct neuroanatomical substrates? We addressed this issue using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure neural activity when subjects listened to spoken normal sentences contrasted with sentences that had either (A) pragmatical, (B) semantic (selection restriction), or (C) syntactic (subcategorical) violations sentences. All three contrasts revealed robust activation of the left-inferior-temporal/fusiform gyrus. Activity in this area was also observed in a combined analysis of all three experiments, suggesting that it was modulated by all three types of linguistic violation. Planned statistical comparisons between the three experiments revealed (1) a greater difference between conditions in activation of the left-superior-temporal gyrus for the pragmatic experiment than the semantic/syntactic experiments; (2) a greater difference between conditions in activation of the right-superior and middletemporal gyrus in the semantic experiment than in the syntactic experiment; and (3) no regions activated to a greater degree in the syntactic experiment than in the semantic experiment. These data show that, while left- and right-superior-temporal regions may be differentially involved in processing pragmatic and lexico-semantic information within sentences, the left-inferior-temporal/fusiform gyrus is involved in processing all three types of linguistic information. We suggest that this region may play a key role in using pragmatic, semantic (selection restriction), and subcategorical information to construct a higher representation of meaning of sentences.