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Perturbation of left posterior prefrontal cortex modulates top-down processing in sentence comprehension

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Meyer,  Lars
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

Elsner,  Anne
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

Turker,  Sabrina
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Kuhnke,  Philipp
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Hartwigsen,  Gesa
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Citation

Meyer, L., Elsner, A., Turker, S., Kuhnke, P., & Hartwigsen, G. (2018). Perturbation of left posterior prefrontal cortex modulates top-down processing in sentence comprehension. NeuroImage, 181, 598-604. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.07.059.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0001-D7C6-D
Abstract
Communication is an inferential process. In particular, language comprehension constantly requires top-down efforts, as often multiple interpretations are compatible with a given sentence. To assess top-down processing in the language domain, our experiment employed ambiguous sentences that allow for multiple interpretations (e.g., The client sued the murderer with the corrupt lawyer., where the corrupt lawyer could either belong to The client or the murderer). Interpretation thus depended on whether participants chunk the words of the sentence into short or long syntactic phrases. In principle, bottom-up acoustic information (i.e., the presence or absence of an intonational phrase boundary at the offset of the murderer) indicates one of the two possible interpretations. Yet, acoustic information often indicates interpretations that require words to be chunked into overly long phrases that would overburden working memory. Processing is biased against these demands, reflected in a top-down preference to chunk words into short rather than long phrases. It is often proposed, but also hotly debated, that the ability to chunk words into short phrases is subserved by the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Here, we employed focal repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to perturb the left IFG, which resulted in a further decrease of the aptitude to tolerate long phrases, indicating the inability of the left IFG to assist the chunking of words into phrases. In contrast, the processing of auditory information was not affected. Our findings support a causal top-down role of the left inferior frontal gyrus in the chunking of words into phrases.