The anatomy of language: contributions from functional neuroimaging

J Anat. 2000 Oct;197 Pt 3(Pt 3):335-59. doi: 10.1046/j.1469-7580.2000.19730335.x.


This article illustrates how functional neuroimaging can be used to test the validity of neurological and cognitive models of language. Three models of language are described: the 19th Century neurological model which describes both the anatomy and cognitive components of auditory and visual word processing, and 2 20th Century cognitive models that are not constrained by anatomy but emphasise 2 different routes to reading that are not present in the neurological model. A series of functional imaging studies are then presented which show that, as predicted by the 19th Century neurologists, auditory and visual word repetition engage the left posterior superior temporal and posterior inferior frontal cortices. More specifically, the roles Wernicke and Broca assigned to these regions lie respectively in the posterior superior temporal sulcus and the anterior insula. In addition, a region in the left posterior inferior temporal cortex is activated for word retrieval, thereby providing a second route to reading, as predicted by the 20th Century cognitive models. This region and its function may have been missed by the 19th Century neurologists because selective damage is rare. The angular gyrus, previously linked to the visual word form system, is shown to be part of a distributed semantic system that can be accessed by objects and faces as well as speech. Other components of the semantic system include several regions in the inferior and middle temporal lobes. From these functional imaging results, a new anatomically constrained model of word processing is proposed which reconciles the anatomical ambitions of the 19th Century neurologists and the cognitive finesse of the 20th Century cognitive models. The review focuses on single word processing and does not attempt to discuss how words are combined to generate sentences or how several languages are learned and interchanged. Progress in unravelling these and other related issues will depend on the integration of behavioural, computational and neurophysiological approaches, including neuroimaging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Speech / physiology