Delta-band neural responses to individual words are modulated by sentence processing

Slaats, S., Weissbart, H., Schoffelen, J.-M., Meyer, A. S., & Martin, A. E. (2023). Delta-band neural responses to individual words are modulated by sentence processing. The Journal of Neuroscience, 43(26), 4867-4883. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0964-22.2023.
To understand language, we need to recognize words and combine them into phrases and sentences. During this process, responses to the words themselves are changed. In a step towards understanding how the brain builds sentence structure, the present study concerns the neural readout of this adaptation. We ask whether low-frequency neural readouts associated with words change as a function of being in a sentence. To this end, we analyzed an MEG dataset by Schoffelen et al. (2019) of 102 human participants (51 women) listening to sentences and word lists, the latter lacking any syntactic structure and combinatorial meaning. Using temporal response functions and a cumulative model-fitting approach, we disentangled delta- and theta-band responses to lexical information (word frequency), from responses to sensory- and distributional variables. The results suggest that delta-band responses to words are affected by sentence context in time and space, over and above entropy and surprisal. In both conditions, the word frequency response spanned left temporal and posterior frontal areas; however, the response appeared later in word lists than in sentences. In addition, sentence context determined whether inferior frontal areas were responsive to lexical information. In the theta band, the amplitude was larger in the word list condition around 100 milliseconds in right frontal areas. We conclude that low-frequency responses to words are changed by sentential context. The results of this study speak to how the neural representation of words is affected by structural context, and as such provide insight into how the brain instantiates compositionality in language.
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