Speaking in the brain: The interaction between words and syntax in sentence production

Takashima, A., Konopka, A. E., Meyer, A. S., Hagoort, P., & Weber, K. (2020). Speaking in the brain: The interaction between words and syntax in sentence production. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 32(8), 1466-1483. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_01563.
This neuroimaging study investigated the neural infrastructure of sentence-level language production. We compared brain activation patterns, as measured with BOLD-fMRI, during production of sentences that differed in verb argument structures (intransitives, transitives, ditransitives) and the lexical status of the verb (known verbs or pseudoverbs). The experiment consisted of 30 mini-blocks of six sentences each. Each mini-block started with an example for the type of sentence to be produced in that block. On each trial in the mini-blocks, participants were first given the (pseudo-)verb followed by three geometric shapes to serve as verb arguments in the sentences. Production of sentences with known verbs yielded greater activation compared to sentences with pseudoverbs in the core language network of the left inferior frontal gyrus, the left posterior middle temporalgyrus, and a more posterior middle temporal region extending into the angular gyrus, analogous to effects observed in language comprehension. Increasing the number of verb arguments led to greater activation in an overlapping left posterior middle temporal gyrus/angular gyrus area, particularly for known verbs, as well as in the bilateral precuneus. Thus, producing sentences with more complex structures using existing verbs leads to increased activation in the language network, suggesting some reliance on memory retrieval of stored lexical–syntactic information during sentence production. This study thus provides evidence from sentence-level language production in line with functional models of the language network that have so far been mainly based on single-word production, comprehension, and language processing in aphasia.
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