Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The N400 ERP is an electrophysiological index of semantic processing. Its amplitude varies with the semantic category of words, their concreteness, or whether their meaning matches that of a preceding context. The results of a number of studies suggest that these effects could be markedly reduced or suppressed for stimuli that are repeated. Nevertheless, we have recently shown that significant effects of semantic matching and category could be obtained on N400-like potentials elicited by massively repeated target words in a prime–target semantic categorization task. If such effects could be obtained when primes also are repeated, it would then be possible to study the semantic associations between individual words. The present study thus aimed to test this hypothesis while (1) controlling for a potential contribution of physical matching to the processing of repeated targets and (2) testing if the N400-like effects obtained in these conditions are modulated by task instruction, as are classic N400 effects. Two category words were used as primes and two exemplars as targets. In one block of trials, subjects had to respond according to the semantic relation between prime and target (semantic instruction) and, in another block, they had to report changes in letter case (physical instruction). Results showed that the amplitude of the N400-like ERP obtained was modulated by semantic matching and category but not by letter case. The effect of semantic matching was observed only in the semantic instruction block. Interestingly, the effect of category was not modulated by task instruction. An independent component analysis showed that the component that made the greatest contribution to the effect of semantic matching in the time window of the N400-like potential had a scalp distribution similar to that reported for the N400 and was best fit as a bilateral generator in the superior temporal gyrus. The use of repetition could thus allow, at least in explicit semantic tasks, a drastic simplification of N400 protocols. Highly repeated individual words could be used to study semantic relations between individual concepts.