We investigated how articulatory complexity at the phoneme level is manifested neurobiologically in an overt production task. fMRI images were acquired from young Korean-speaking adults as they pronounced bisyllabic pseudowords in which we manipulated phonological complexity defined in terms of vowel duration and instability (viz., COMPLEX: /tiɯi/ >> MID-COMPLEX: /tiye/ >> SIMPLE: /tii/). Increased activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus (Brodmann Areas (BA) 44 and 47), supplementary motor area and anterior insula was observed for the articulation of COMPLEX sequences relative to MID-COMPLEX; this was the case with the articulation of MID-COMPLEX relative to SIMPLE, except that the pars orbitalis (BA 47) was dominantly identified in the Broca's area. The differentiation indicates that phonological complexity is reflected in the neural processing of distinct phonemic representations, both by recruiting brain regions associated with retrieval of phonological information from memory and via articulatory rehearsal for the production of COMPLEX vowels. In addition, the finding that increased complexity engages greater areas of the brain suggests that brain activation can be a neurobiological measure of articulo-phonological complexity, complementing, if not substituting for, biomechanical measurements of speech motor activity.
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