In language processing, the relative contribution of early sensory and higher cognitive brain areas is still an open issue. A recent controversial hypothesis proposes that sensory cortices show sensitivity to syntactic processes, whereas other studies suggest a wider neural network outside sensory regions. The goal of the current event-related fMRI study is to clarify the contribution of sensory cortices in auditory syntactic processing in a 2 × 2 design. Two-word utterances were presented auditorily and varied both in perceptual markedness (presence or absence of an overt word category marking "-t"), and in grammaticality (syntactically correct or incorrect). A multivariate pattern classification approach was applied to the data, flanked by conventional cognitive subtraction analyses. The combination of methods and the 2 × 2 design revealed a clear picture: The cognitive subtraction analysis found initial syntactic processing signatures in a neural network including the left IFG, the left aSTG, the left superior temporal sulcus (STS), as well as the right STS/STG. Classification of local multivariate patterns indicated the left-hemispheric regions in IFG, aSTG, and STS to be more syntax-specific than the right-hemispheric regions. Importantly, auditory sensory cortices were only sensitive to the overt perceptual marking, but not to the grammaticality, speaking against syntax-inflicted sensory cortex modulations. Instead, our data provide clear evidence for a distinction between regions involved in pure perceptual processes and regions involved in initial syntactic processes.
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