Abstract

For the past 150 years, neurobiological models of language have debated the role of key brain regions in language function. One consistently debated set of issues concern the role of the left inferior frontal gyrus in syntactic processing. Here we combine measures of functional activity, grey matter integrity and performance in patients with left hemisphere damage and healthy participants to ask whether the left inferior frontal gyrus is essential for syntactic processing. In a functional neuroimaging study, participants listened to spoken sentences that either contained a syntactically ambiguous or matched unambiguous phrase. Behavioural data on three tests of syntactic processing were subsequently collected. In controls, syntactic processing co-activated left hemisphere Brodmann areas 45/47 and posterior middle temporal gyrus. Activity in a left parietal cluster was sensitive to working memory demands in both patients and controls. Exploiting the variability in lesion location and performance in the patients, voxel-based correlational analyses showed that tissue integrity and neural activity—primarily in left Brodmann area 45 and posterior middle temporal gyrus—were correlated with preserved syntactic performance, but unlike the controls, patients were insensitive to syntactic preferences, reflecting their syntactic deficit. These results argue for the essential contribution of the left inferior frontal gyrus in syntactic analysis and highlight the functional relationship between left Brodmann area 45 and the left posterior middle temporal gyrus, suggesting that when this relationship breaks down, through damage to either region or to the connections between them, syntactic processing is impaired. On this view, the left inferior frontal gyrus may not itself be specialized for syntactic processing, but plays an essential role in the neural network that carries out syntactic computations.

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