Fractionating language: different neural subsystems with different sensitive periods

Cereb Cortex. May-Jun 1992;2(3):244-58. doi: 10.1093/cercor/2.3.244.


Theoretical considerations and psycholinguistic studies have alternatively provided criticism and support for the proposal that semantic and grammatical functions are distinct subprocesses within the language domain. Neurobiological evidence concerning this hypothesis was sought by (1) comparing, in normal adults, event-related brain potentials (ERPs) elicited by words that provide primarily semantic information (open class) and grammatical information (closed class) and (2) comparing the effects of the altered early language experience of congenitally deaf subjects on ERPs to open and closed class words. In normal-hearing adults, the different word types elicited qualitatively different ERPs that were compatible with the hypothesized different roles of the word classes in language processing. In addition, whereas ERP indices of semantic processing were virtually identical in deaf and hearing subjects, those linked to grammatical processes were markedly different in deaf and hearing subjects. The results suggest that nonidentical neural systems with different developmental vulnerabilities mediate these different aspects of language. More generally, these results provide neurobiological support for the distinction between semantic and grammatical functions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Deafness / physiopathology
  • Evoked Potentials
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Language Development*
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Reaction Time
  • Reference Values
  • Semantics