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Oxytocin modulates semantic integration in speech comprehension

Ye, Z., Stolk, A., Toni, I., & Hagoort, P. (2017). Oxytocin modulates semantic integration in speech comprehension. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 29, 267-276. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_01044.
Listeners interpret utterances by integrating information from multiple sources including word level semantics and world knowledge. When the semantics of an expression is inconsistent with his or her knowledge about the world, the listener may have to search through the conceptual space for alternative possible world scenarios that can make the expression more acceptable. Such cognitive exploration requires considerable computational resources and might depend on motivational factors. This study explores whether and how oxytocin, a neuropeptide known to influence socialmotivation by reducing social anxiety and enhancing affiliative tendencies, can modulate the integration of world knowledge and sentence meanings. The study used a betweenparticipant double-blind randomized placebo-controlled design. Semantic integration, indexed with magnetoencephalography through the N400m marker, was quantified while 45 healthymale participants listened to sentences that were either congruent or incongruent with facts of the world, after receiving intranasally delivered oxytocin or placebo. Compared with congruent sentences, world knowledge incongruent sentences elicited a stronger N400m signal from the left inferior frontal and anterior temporal regions and medial pFC (the N400m effect) in the placebo group. Oxytocin administration significantly attenuated the N400meffect at both sensor and cortical source levels throughout the experiment, in a state-like manner. Additional electrophysiological markers suggest that the absence of the N400m effect in the oxytocin group is unlikely due to the lack of early sensory or semantic processing or a general downregulation of attention. These findings suggest that oxytocin drives listeners to resolve challenges of semantic integration, possibly by promoting the cognitive exploration of alternative possible world scenarios.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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