Spatiotemporal dynamics of argument retrieval and reordering: an FMRI and EEG study on sentence processing

Front Psychol. 2012 Dec 11;3:523. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00523. eCollection 2012.


In sentence processing, it is still unclear how the neural language network successfully establishes argument-verb dependencies in its spatiotemporal neuronal dynamics. Previous work has suggested that the establishment of subject-verb and object-verb dependencies requires argument retrieval from working memory, and that dependency establishment in object-first sentences additionally necessitates argument reordering. We examine the spatiotemporal neuronal dynamics of the brain regions that subserve these sub-processes by crossing an argument reordering factor (i.e., subject-first versus object-first sentences) with an argument retrieval factor (i.e., short versus long argument-verb dependencies) in German. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that reordering demands focally activate the left pars opercularis (Broca's area), while storage and retrieval demands activated left temporo-parietal (TP) regions. In addition, when analyzing the time course of fMRI-informed equivalent current dipole sources in the EEG at the subcategorizing verb, we found that activity in the TP-region occurs relatively early (40-180 ms), followed by activity in Broca's area (300-500 ms). These findings were matched by topographical correlation analyses of fMRI activations in EEG sensor space, showing that, in the scalp potential, TP-region activity surfaces as an early positivity and IFG activity as a later positivity in the scalp potential. These results provide fine-grained evidence for spatiotemporally separable sub-processes of argument retrieval and reordering in sentence processing.

Keywords: argument–verb dependency; dipole time course; inferior frontal gyrus; inferior parietal cortex; source localization; syntax; working memory.