Selective attention to semantic and syntactic features modulates sentence processing networks in anterior temporal cortex

Cereb Cortex. 2009 Apr;19(4):786-96. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhn126. Epub 2008 Jul 31.


Numerous studies have identified an anterior temporal lobe (ATL) region that responds preferentially to sentence-level stimuli. It is unclear, however, whether this activity reflects a response to syntactic computations or some form of semantic integration. This distinction is difficult to investigate with the stimulus manipulations and anomaly detection paradigms traditionally implemented. The present functional magnetic resonance imaging study addresses this question via a selective attention paradigm. Subjects monitored for occasional semantic anomalies or occasional syntactic errors, thus directing their attention to semantic integration, or syntactic properties of the sentences. The hemodynamic response in the sentence-selective ATL region (defined with a localizer scan) was examined during anomaly/error-free sentences only, to avoid confounds due to error detection. The majority of the sentence-specific region of interest was equally modulated by attention to syntactic or compositional semantic features, whereas a smaller subregion was only modulated by the semantic task. We suggest that the sentence-specific ATL region is sensitive to both syntactic and integrative semantic functions during sentence processing, with a smaller portion of this area preferentially involved in the later. This study also suggests that selective attention paradigms may be effective tools to investigate the functional diversity of networks involved in sentence processing.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Semantics*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*
  • Young Adult