Syntax and the brain: disentangling grammar by selective anomalies

Neuroimage. 2001 Jan;13(1):110-8. doi: 10.1006/nimg.2000.0668.


Many paradigms employed so far with functional imaging in language studies do not allow a clear differentiation of the semantic, morphological, and syntactic components, as traditionally defined within linguistic theory. In fact, many studies simply consider the brain's response to lists of unrelated words, rather than to syntactic structures, or do not neutralize the confounding effect of the semantic component. In the present PET experiment, we isolated the functional correlates of morphological and syntactic processing. The neutralization of the access to the lexical-semantic component was achieved by requiring the detection of anomalies in written sentences consisting of pseudowords. In both syntactic and morphosyntactic processing, the involvement of a selective deep component of Broca's area and of a right inferior frontal region was detected. In addition, within this system, the left caudate nucleus and insula were activated only during syntactic processing, indicating their role in syntactic computation. These findings provide original in vivo evidence that these brain structures, whose individual contribution has been highlighted by clinical studies, constitute a neural network selectively engaged in morphological and syntactic computation.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Nerve Net
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Speech / physiology
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed