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, 3 (3), e1832

Electrical Brain Responses in Language-Impaired Children Reveal Grammar-Specific Deficits

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Electrical Brain Responses in Language-Impaired Children Reveal Grammar-Specific Deficits

Elisabeth Fonteneau et al. PLoS One.

Abstract

Background: Scientific and public fascination with human language have included intensive scrutiny of language disorders as a new window onto the biological foundations of language and its evolutionary origins. Specific language impairment (SLI), which affects over 7% of children, is one such disorder. SLI has received robust scientific attention, in part because of its recent linkage to a specific gene and loci on chromosomes and in part because of the prevailing question regarding the scope of its language impairment: Does the disorder impact the general ability to segment and process language or a specific ability to compute grammar? Here we provide novel electrophysiological data showing a domain-specific deficit within the grammar of language that has been hitherto undetectable through behavioural data alone.

Methods and findings: We presented participants with Grammatical(G)-SLI, age-matched controls, and younger child and adult controls, with questions containing syntactic violations and sentences containing semantic violations. Electrophysiological brain responses revealed a selective impairment to only neural circuitry that is specific to grammatical processing in G-SLI. Furthermore, the participants with G-SLI appeared to be partially compensating for their syntactic deficit by using neural circuitry associated with semantic processing and all non-grammar-specific and low-level auditory neural responses were normal.

Conclusions: The findings indicate that grammatical neural circuitry underlying language is a developmentally unique system in the functional architecture of the brain, and this complex higher cognitive system can be selectively impaired. The findings advance fundamental understanding about how cognitive systems develop and all human language is represented and processed in the brain.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1. Syntactic dependency component (ELAN, 100–300 ms -grey area) elicited for the syntactic violation.
a. ERP waveforms for the groups from F5 (left frontal) electrode. b. Scalp distribution of differences between the violation minus control sentences for each group. The syntactic violation elicited a negativity distributed on the left hemisphere for the age controls (Condition×Hemisphere: F 1,17 = 10.16, p<.005), and the language controls (Condition×Hemisphere: F 1,19 = 11.12, p<.003; Condition×Caudality×Hemisphere: F 2,38 = 3.55, p<.05), with a maximum of difference on the anterior left sites for both groups (p<.006, p<.05 respectively). This negativity is equally distributed on anterior sites for the adults (Condition×Caudality: F 2,38 = 10.17, p<.001; anterior central p<.001). No effect was significant for the G-SLI children (F<1). c. Effect sizes for individual G-SLI children and their age controls (numbers correspond to matched individuals with increasing numbers corresponding to increasing age). Effect size: mean amplitude difference (violation minus control) in the Anterior Left ROI in the 100–300 ms time window. We plot Negativity upward.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Semantic component (N400, 300–500 ms –grey area) elicited for the syntactic violation for the G-SLI group.
a. ERPs from three posterior electrodes (P3, left P4 right hemisphere and Pz midline) for the G-SLI and Age Control groups. b. Scalp distribution of the differences between the violation minus control sentences. The ERPs from the G-SLI participants elicited a negativity distributed on the posterior area for the syntactic violation (Condition×Caudality: F 2,34 = 3.08, p<.05). Note the raw data suggested a lateralisation of the N400 (Condition×Caudality×Laterality F 2,34 = 3.75, p = .03) whereas the normalised data indicated a non significant interaction (F 2,34 = 1.93, p = .15). No other group showed this result for the 300–500 ms time window. c. Effect sizes for individual G-SLI children and their age controls. Effect size: mean amplitude difference (violation minus control) in the Posterior Central ROI within the 300–500 ms temporal window. We plot Negativity upward.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Reanalysis component (P600, 800–1000 ms–grey area) elicited for the syntactic violation.
a. ERP waveforms, for each group from Fz (frontal electrode). b. Scalp distribution of the differences between the violation minus control sentences for each group. The syntactic violation elicited a positivity distributed on anterior regions with a maximum on the right sites for the G-SLI participants (Condition×Caudality: F 2,34 = 15.64, p<.0001, Condition×Caudality×Hemisphere F 2,34 = 6.39, p<.005); and on anterior regions for the age controls (Condition×Caudality: F 2,34 = 8.93, p<.003), language controls (Condition×Caudality: F 2,38 = 17.54, p<.001), and adults (Condition×Caudality: F 2,38 = 9.61, p<.003). c. Effect sizes for individual G-SLI children and their age controls. Effect size: mean amplitude difference (violation minus control) in the Anterior Right ROI within the 800–1000 ms temporal window. We plot Negativity upward.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Semantic component (N400, 300–500 ms) elicited for the semantic violation.
a. ERP waveforms for each group from two posterior electrodes (P3, left and P4 right hemisphere). b. Scalp distribution of the differences between the violation minus the control sentences for each group. The semantic violation elicited a posterior negativity for the age controls (Condition×Caudality: F 2,34 = 3.72, p<.05) and also the G-SLI group (Condition×Caudality: F 2,34 = 7.15, p<.001). This negativity was maximal on the right hemisphere for the language controls (Condition×Hemisphere: F 1,18 = 6.92, p<.01), and on the left posterior sites for the adults (Condition×Caudality: F 2,38 = 6.07, p<.01, Condition×Hemisphere: F 1,19 = 10.69, p<.001). Note that the N400 effect started as early as 100 ms for the G-SLI, age and language controls. c. Effect sizes for individual G-SLI children and their age controls. Effect size: mean amplitude difference (violation minus control) in the 3 Posterior ROIs within the 300–500 ms temporal window. We plot Negativity upward.

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