Slow neural oscillations (~1-15 Hz) are thought to orchestrate the neural processes of spoken language comprehension. However, functional subdivisions within this broad range of frequencies are disputed, with most studies hypothesizing only about single frequency bands. The present study utilizes an established paradigm of spoken word recognition (lexical decision) to test the hypothesis that within the slow neural oscillatory frequency range, distinct functional signatures and cortical networks can be identified at least for theta- (~3-7 Hz) and alpha-frequencies (~8-12 Hz). Listeners performed an auditory lexical decision task on a set of items that formed a word-pseudoword continuum: ranging from (1) real words over (2) ambiguous pseudowords (deviating from real words only in one vowel; comparable to natural mispronunciations in speech) to (3) pseudowords (clearly deviating from real words by randomized syllables). By means of time-frequency analysis and spatial filtering, we observed a dissociation into distinct but simultaneous patterns of alpha power suppression and theta power enhancement. Alpha exhibited a parametric suppression as items increasingly matched real words, in line with lowered functional inhibition in a left-dominant lexical processing network for more word-like input. Simultaneously, theta power in a bilateral fronto-temporal network was selectively enhanced for ambiguous pseudowords only. Thus, enhanced alpha power can neurally 'gate' lexical integration, while enhanced theta power might index functionally more specific ambiguity-resolution processes. To this end, a joint analysis of both frequency bands provides neural evidence for parallel processes in achieving spoken word recognition.
Keywords: EEG; Lexical decision; Slow neural oscillations; Source localization; Time–frequency analysis.
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