Right Lateral Cerebellum Represents Linguistic Predictability

J Neurosci. 2017 Jun 28;37(26):6231-6241. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3203-16.2017. Epub 2017 May 25.


Mounting evidence indicates that posterolateral portions of the cerebellum (right Crus I/II) contribute to language processing, but the nature of this role remains unclear. Based on a well-supported theory of cerebellar motor function, which ascribes to the cerebellum a role in short-term prediction through internal modeling, we hypothesize that right cerebellar Crus I/II supports prediction of upcoming sentence content. We tested this hypothesis using event-related fMRI in male and female human subjects by manipulating the predictability of written sentences. Our design controlled for motor planning and execution, as well as for linguistic features and working memory load; it also allowed separation of the prediction interval from the presentation of the final sentence item. In addition, three further fMRI tasks captured semantic, phonological, and orthographic processing to shed light on the nature of the information processed. As hypothesized, activity in right posterolateral cerebellum correlated with the predictability of the upcoming target word. This cerebellar region also responded to prediction error during the outcome of the trial. Further, this region was engaged in phonological, but not semantic or orthographic, processing. This is the first imaging study to demonstrate a right cerebellar contribution in language comprehension independently from motor, cognitive, and linguistic confounds. These results complement our work using other methodologies showing cerebellar engagement in linguistic prediction and suggest that internal modeling of phonological representations aids language production and comprehension.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT The cerebellum is traditionally seen as a motor structure that allows for smooth movement by predicting upcoming signals. However, the cerebellum is also consistently implicated in nonmotor functions such as language and working memory. Using fMRI, we identify a cerebellar area that is active when words are predicted and when these predictions are violated. This area is active in a separate task that requires phonological processing, but not in tasks that require semantic or visuospatial processing. Our results support the idea of prediction as a unifying cerebellar function in motor and nonmotor domains. We provide new insights by linking the cerebellar role in prediction to its role in verbal working memory, suggesting that these predictions involve phonological processing.

Keywords: cerebellum; fMRI; language; nonmotor; phonological working memory; prediction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cerebellum / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Verbal Learning / physiology*
  • Young Adult