Differential contributions of inferior frontal gyrus subregions to sentence processing guided by intonation

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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