A rostro-caudal axis for language in the frontal lobe: the role of executive control in speech production

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Nov:47:431-44. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.09.008. Epub 2014 Oct 8.


The present article promotes a formal executive model of frontal functions underlying speech production, bringing together hierarchical theories of adaptive behavior in the (pre-)frontal cortex (pFC) and psycho- and neurolinguistic approaches to spoken language within an information-theoretic framework. Its biological plausibility is revealed through two Activation Likelihood Estimation meta-analyses carried out on a total of 41 hemodynamic studies of overt word and continuous speech production respectively. Their principal findings, considered in light of neuropsychological evidence and earlier models of speech-related frontal functions, support the engagement of a caudal-to-rostral gradient of pFC activity operationalized by the nature and quantity of speech-related information conveyed by task-related external cues (i.e., cue codability) on the one hand, and the total informational content of generated utterances on the other. In particular, overt reading or repetition and picture naming recruit primarily caudal motor-premotor regions involved in the sensorimotor and phonological aspects of speech; word and sentence generation engage mid- ventro- and dorsolateral areas supporting its basic predicative and syntactic functions; finally, rostral- and fronto-polar cortices subsume domain-general strategic processes of discourse generation for creative speech. These different levels interact in a top-down fashion, ranging representationally and temporally from the most general and extended to the most specific and immediate. The end-result is an integrative theory of pFC as the main executive component of the language cortical network, which supports the existence of areas specialized for speech communication and articulation and regions subsuming internal reasoning and planning. Prospective avenues of research pertaining to this model's principal predictions are discussed.

Keywords: Executive control; Information theory; Language evolution; Language processing; Language production; Planning and reasoning; Prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Speech / physiology*