Role of the left hemisphere in sign language comprehension

Brain Lang. 2002 Aug;82(2):167-78. doi: 10.1016/s0093-934x(02)00013-5.


We investigated the relative role of the left versus right hemisphere in the comprehension of American Sign Language (ASL). Nineteen lifelong signers with unilateral brain lesions [11 left hemisphere damaged (LHD) and 8 right hemisphere damaged (RHD)] performed three tasks, an isolated single-sign comprehension task, a sentence-level comprehension task involving simple one-step commands, and a sentence-level comprehension task involving more complex multiclause/multistep commands. Eighteen of the participants were deaf, one RHD subject was hearing and bilingual (ASL and English). Performance was examined in relation to two factors: whether the lesion was in the right or left hemisphere and whether the temporal lobe was involved. The LHD group performed significantly worse than the RHD group on all three tasks, confirming left hemisphere dominance for sign language comprehension. The group with left temporal lobe involvement was significantly impaired on all tasks, whereas each of the other three groups performed at better than 95% correct on the single sign and simple sentence comprehension tasks, with performance falling off only on the complex sentence comprehension items. A comparison with previously published data suggests that the degree of difficulty exhibited by the deaf RHD group on the complex sentences is comparable to that observed in hearing RHD subjects. Based on these findings we hypothesize (i) that deaf and hearing individuals have a similar degree of lateralization of language comprehension processes and (ii) that language comprehension depends primarily on the integrity of the left temporal lobe.

MeSH terms

  • Aphasia / diagnosis*
  • Aphasia / etiology
  • Aphasia / physiopathology
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / complications
  • Cerebrovascular Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed