Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The role that human motor areas play in linguistic processing is the subject of a stimulating debate. Data from nine neurosurgical patients with selective lesions of the precentral and postcentral sulcus could provide a direct answer as to whether motor area activation is necessary for action word processing. Action-related verbs (face-, hand-, and feet-related verbs plus neutral verbs) silently read were processed for (i) motor imagery by vividness ratings and (ii) frequency ratings. Although no stimulus- or task-dependent modulation was found in the RTs of healthy controls, patients showed a task × stimulus interaction resulting in a stimulus-dependent somatotopic pattern of RTs for the imagery task. A lesion affecting a part of the cortex that represents a body part also led to slower RTs during the creation of mental images for verbs describing actions involving that same body part. By contrast, no category-related differences were seen in the frequency judgment task. This task-related dissociation suggests that the sensorimotor area is critically involved in processing action verbs only when subjects are simulating the corresponding movement. These findings have important implications for the ongoing discussion regarding the involvement of the sensorimotor cortex in linguistic processing.