We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the areas activated by signed narratives in non-signing subjects naïve to sign language (SL) and compared it to the activation obtained when hearing speech in their mother tongue. A subset of left hemisphere (LH) language areas activated when participants watched an audio-visual narrative in their mother tongue was activated when they observed a signed narrative. The inferior frontal (IFG) and precentral (Prec) gyri, the posterior parts of the planum temporale (pPT) and of the superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), and the occipito-temporal junction (OTJ) were activated by both languages. The activity of these regions was not related to the presence of communicative intent because no such changes were observed when the non-signers watched a muted video of a spoken narrative. Recruitment was also not triggered by the linguistic structure of SL, because the areas, except pPT, were not activated when subjects listened to an unknown spoken language. The comparison of brain reactivity for spoken and sign languages shows that SL has a special status in the brain compared to speech; in contrast to unknown oral language, the neural correlates of SL overlap LH speech comprehension areas in non-signers. These results support the idea that strong relationships exist between areas involved in human action observation and language, suggesting that the observation of hand gestures have shaped the lexico-semantic language areas as proposed by the motor theory of speech. As a whole, the present results support the theory of a gestural origin of language.
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