Constantijn van der Burght


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  • Numssen, O., van der Burght, C. L., & Hartwigsen, G. (2023). Revisiting the focality of non-invasive brain stimulation - implications for studies of human cognition. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 149: 105154. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2023.105154.


    Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques are popular tools to investigate brain function in health and disease. Although transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is widely used in cognitive neuroscience research to probe causal structure-function relationships, studies often yield inconclusive results. To improve the effectiveness of TMS studies, we argue that the cognitive neuroscience community needs to revise the stimulation focality principle – the spatial resolution with which TMS can differentially stimulate cortical regions. In the motor domain, TMS can differentiate between cortical muscle representations of adjacent fingers. However, this high degree of spatial specificity cannot be obtained in all cortical regions due to the influences of cortical folding patterns on the TMS-induced electric field. The region-dependent focality of TMS should be assessed a priori to estimate the experimental feasibility. Post-hoc simulations allow modeling of the relationship between cortical stimulation exposure and behavioral modulation by integrating data across stimulation sites or subjects.

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  • van der Burght, C. L., Numssen, O., Schlaak, B., Goucha, T., & Hartwigsen, G. (2023). Differential contributions of inferior frontal gyrus subregions to sentence processing guided by intonation. Human Brain Mapping, 44(2), 585-598. doi:10.1002/hbm.26086.


    Auditory sentence comprehension involves processing content (semantics), grammar (syntax), and intonation (prosody). The left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) is involved in sentence comprehension guided by these different cues, with neuroimaging studies preferentially locating syntactic and semantic processing in separate IFG subregions. However, this regional specialisation and its functional relevance has yet to be confirmed. This study probed the role of the posterior IFG (pIFG) for syntactic processing and the anterior IFG (aIFG) for semantic processing with repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in a task that required the interpretation of the sentence’s prosodic realisation. Healthy participants performed a sentence completion task with syntactic and semantic decisions, while receiving 10 Hz rTMS over either left aIFG, pIFG, or vertex (control). Initial behavioural analyses showed an inhibitory effect on accuracy without task-specificity. However, electrical field simulations revealed differential effects for both subregions. In the aIFG, stronger stimulation led to slower semantic processing, with no effect of pIFG stimulation. In contrast, we found a facilitatory effect on syntactic processing in both aIFG and pIFG, where higher stimulation strength was related to faster responses. Our results provide first evidence for the functional relevance of left aIFG in semantic processing guided by intonation. The stimulation effect on syntactic responses emphasises the importance of the IFG for syntax processing, without supporting the hypothesis of a pIFG-specific involvement. Together, the results support the notion of functionally specialised IFG subregions for diverse but fundamental cues for language processing.

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  • van der Burght, C. L., Friederici, A. D., Maran, M., Papitto, G., Pyatigorskaya, E., Schroen, J., Trettenbrein, P., & Zaccarella, E. (2023). Cleaning up the brickyard: How theory and methodology shape experiments in cognitive neuroscience of language. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_02058.


    The capacity for language is a defining property of our species, yet despite decades of research evidence on its neural basis is still mixed and a generalized consensus is difficult to achieve. We suggest that this is partly caused by researchers defining “language” in different ways, with focus on a wide range of phenomena, properties, and levels of investigation. Accordingly, there is very little agreement amongst cognitive neuroscientists of language on the operationalization of fundamental concepts to be investigated in neuroscientific experiments. Here, we review chains of derivation in the cognitive neuroscience of language, focusing on how the hypothesis under consideration is defined by a combination of theoretical and methodological assumptions. We first attempt to disentangle the complex relationship between linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience in the field. Next, we focus on how conclusions that can be drawn from any experiment are inherently constrained by auxiliary assumptions, both theoretical and methodological, on which the validity of conclusions drawn rests. These issues are discussed in the context of classical experimental manipulations as well as study designs that employ novel approaches such as naturalistic stimuli and computational modelling. We conclude by proposing that a highly interdisciplinary field such as the cognitive neuroscience of language requires researchers to form explicit statements concerning the theoretical definitions, methodological choices, and other constraining factors involved in their work.
  • van der Burght, C. L., Friederici, A. D., Goucha, T., & Hartwigsen, G. (2021). Pitch accents create dissociable syntactic and semantic expectations during sentence processing. Cognition, 212: 104702. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104702.


    The language system uses syntactic, semantic, as well as prosodic cues to efficiently guide auditory sentence comprehension. Prosodic cues, such as pitch accents, can build expectations about upcoming sentence elements. This study investigates to what extent syntactic and semantic expectations generated by pitch accents can be dissociated and if so, which cues take precedence when contradictory information is present. We used sentences in which one out of two nominal constituents was placed in contrastive focus with a third one. All noun phrases carried overt syntactic information (case-marking of the determiner) and semantic information (typicality of the thematic role of the noun). Two experiments (a sentence comprehension and a sentence completion task) show that focus, marked by pitch accents, established expectations in both syntactic and semantic domains. However, only the syntactic expectations, when violated, were strong enough to interfere with sentence comprehension. Furthermore, when contradictory cues occurred in the same sentence, the local syntactic cue (case-marking) took precedence over the semantic cue (thematic role), and overwrote previous information cued by prosody. The findings indicate that during auditory sentence comprehension the processing system integrates different sources of information for argument role assignment, yet primarily relies on syntactic information.
  • van der Burght, C. L. (2021). The central contribution of prosody to sentence processing: Evidence from behavioural and neuroimaging studies. PhD Thesis, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig.
  • van der Burght, C. L., Goucha, T., Friederici, A. D., Kreitewolf, J., & Hartwigsen, G. (2019). Intonation guides sentence processing in the left inferior frontal gyrus. Cortex, 117, 122-134. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2019.02.011.


    Speech prosody, the variation in sentence melody and rhythm, plays a crucial role in sentence comprehension. Specifically, changes in intonational pitch along a sentence can affect our understanding of who did what to whom. To date, it remains unclear how the brain processes this particular use of intonation and which brain regions are involved. In particular, one central matter of debate concerns the lateralisation of intonation processing. To study the role of intonation in sentence comprehension, we designed a functional MRI experiment in which participants listened to spoken sentences. Critically, the interpretation of these sentences depended on either intonational or grammatical cues. Our results
    showed stronger functional activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) when the intonational cue was crucial for sentence comprehension compared to when it was not. When instead a grammatical cue was crucial for sentence comprehension, we found involvement of an overlapping region in the left IFG, as well as in a posterior temporal
    region. A further analysis revealed that the lateralisation of intonation processing depends on its role in syntactic processing: activity in the IFG was lateralised to the left hemisphere when intonation was the only source of information to comprehend the sentence. In contrast, activity in the IFG was right-lateralised when intonation did not contribute to sentence comprehension. Together, these results emphasise the key role of the left IFG in sentence comprehension, showing the importance of this region when intonation
    establishes sentence structure. Furthermore, our results provide evidence for the theory
    that the lateralisation of prosodic processing is modulated by its linguistic role.

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