Neural systems supporting lexical search guided by letter and semantic category cues: a self-paced overt response fMRI study of verbal fluency

Neuroimage. 2010 Jan 1;49(1):1099-107. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.07.036. Epub 2009 Jul 23.


Verbal fluency tasks have been widely used to evaluate language and executive control processes in the human brain. FMRI studies of verbal fluency, however, have used either silent word generation (which provides no behavioral measure) or cued generation of single words in order to contend with speech-related motion artifacts. In this study, we use a recently developed paradigm design to investigate the neural correlates of verbal fluency during overt, free recall, word generation so that performance and brain activity could be evaluated under conditions that more closely mirror standard behavioral test demands. We investigated verbal fluency to both letter and category cues in order to evaluate differential involvement of specific frontal and temporal lobe sites as a function of retrieval cue type, as suggested by previous neuropsychological and neuroimaging investigations. In addition, we incorporated both a task switching manipulation and an automatic speech condition in order to modulate the demand placed on executive functions. We found greater activation in the left hemisphere during category and letter fluency tasks, and greater right hemisphere activation during automatic speech. We also found that letter and category fluency tasks were associated with differential involvement of specific regions of the frontal and temporal lobes. These findings provide converging evidence that letter and category fluency performance is dependent on partially distinct neural circuitry. They also provide strong evidence that verbal fluency can be successfully evaluated in the MR environment using overt, self-paced, responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Artifacts
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cues
  • Echo-Planar Imaging
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Reading*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Young Adult