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The interface between language and attention: Prosodic focus marking recruits a general attention network in spoken language comprehension

Kristensen, L. B., Wang, L., Petersson, K. M., & Hagoort, P. (2013). The interface between language and attention: Prosodic focus marking recruits a general attention network in spoken language comprehension. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 1836-1848. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs164.
In spoken language, pitch accent can mark certain information as focus, whereby more attentional resources are allocated to the focused information. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, this study examined whether pitch accent, used for marking focus, recruited general attention networks during sentence comprehension. In a language task, we independently manipulated the prosody and semantic/pragmatic congruence of sentences. We found that semantic/pragmatic processing affected bilateral inferior and middle frontal gyrus. The prosody manipulation showed bilateral involvement of the superior/inferior parietal cortex, superior and middle temporal cortex, as well as inferior, middle, and posterior parts of the frontal cortex. We compared these regions with attention networks localized in an auditory spatial attention task. Both tasks activated bilateral superior/inferior parietal cortex, superior temporal cortex, and left precentral cortex. Furthermore, an interaction between prosody and congruence was observed in bilateral inferior parietal regions: for incongruent sentences, but not for congruent ones, there was a larger activation if the incongruent word carried a pitch accent, than if it did not. The common activations between the language task and the spatial attention task demonstrate that pitch accent activates a domain general attention network, which is sensitive to semantic/pragmatic aspects of language. Therefore, attention and language comprehension are highly interactive.

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