Merge in the Human Brain: A Sub-Region Based Functional Investigation in the Left Pars Opercularis

Front Psychol. 2015 Nov 27:6:1818. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01818. eCollection 2015.


Language is thought to represent one of the most complex cognitive functions in humans. Here we break down complexity of language to its most basic syntactic computation which hierarchically binds single words together to form larger phrases and sentences. So far, the neural implementation of this basic operation has only been inferred indirectly from studies investigating more complex linguistic phenomena. In the present sub-region based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study we directly assessed the neuroanatomical nature of this process. Our results showed that syntactic phrases-compared to word-list sequences-corresponded to increased neural activity in the ventral-anterior portion of the left pars opercularis [Brodmann Area (BA) 44], whereas the adjacently located deep frontal operculum/anterior insula (FOP/aINS), a phylogenetically older and less specialized region, was found to be equally active for both conditions. Crucially, the functional activity of syntactic binding was confined to one out of five clusters proposed by a recent fine-grained sub-anatomical parcellation for BA 44, with consistency across individuals. Neuroanatomically, the present results call for a redefinition of BA 44 as a region with internal functional specializations. Neurocomputationally, they support the idea of invariance within BA 44 in the location of activation across participants for basic syntactic building processing.

Keywords: clusters; fMRI; merge; pars opercularis; syntax.