fMRI evidence for strategic decision-making during resolution of pronoun reference

Neuropsychologia. 2012 Apr;50(5):674-87. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.01.004. Epub 2012 Jan 10.


Pronouns are extraordinarily common in daily language yet little is known about the neural mechanisms that support decisions about pronoun reference. We propose a large-scale neural network for resolving pronoun reference that consists of two components. First, a core language network in peri-Sylvian cortex supports syntactic and semantic resources for interpreting pronoun meaning in sentences. Second, a frontal-parietal network that supports strategic decision-making is recruited to support probabilistic and risk-related components of resolving a pronoun's referent. In an fMRI study of healthy young adults, we observed activation of left inferior frontal and superior temporal cortex, consistent with a language network. We also observed activation of brain regions not associated with traditional language areas. By manipulating the context of the pronoun, we were able to demonstrate recruitment of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during probabilistic evaluation of a pronoun's reference, and orbital frontal activation when a pronoun must adopt a risky referent. Together, these findings are consistent with a two-component model for resolving a pronoun's reference that includes neuroanatomic regions supporting core linguistic and decision-making mechanisms.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / blood supply
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Semantics*


  • Oxygen