Background: The right hemisphere may play an important role in paralinguistic features such as the emotional melody in speech. The extent of this involvement however is unclear. Imaging studies have shown involvement of both left and right inferior frontal gyri in emotional prosody perception. The present pilot study examined whether these brain areas are critically involved in the processing of emotional prosody and of semantics in 9 healthy subjects. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation was used with a coil centred over left and right inferior frontal gyri, as localized by neuronavigation based on the subject's MRI. A sham condition was included. An online-TMS approach was applied; an emotional language task was completed during stimulation. This computerized task consisted of sentences pronounced by actors. In the semantics condition an emotion (fear, anger or neutral) was expressed in the content pronounced with a neutral intonation. In the prosody condition the emotion was expressed in the intonation, while the content was neutral.
Results: Reaction times on the emotional prosody task condition were significantly longer after rTMS over both the right and the left inferior frontal gyrus as compared to sham stimulation and after controlling for learning effects associated with order of condition. When taking all emotions together, there was no difference in effect on reaction times between the right and left stimulation. For the emotion Fear, reaction times were significantly longer after stimulating the left inferior frontal gyrus as compared to the right inferior frontal gyrus. Reaction times in the semantics task condition were not significantly different between the three TMS conditions.
Conclusions: The data indicate a critical involvement of both the right and the left inferior frontal gyrus in emotional prosody perception. The findings of this pilot study need replication. Future studies should include more subjects and examine whether the left and right inferior frontal gyrus play a differential role and complement each other, e.g. in the integrated processing of linguistic and prosodic aspects of speech, respectively.