The Cortical Maps of Hierarchical Linguistic Structures during Speech Perception

Cereb Cortex. 2019 Jul 22;29(8):3232-3240. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhy191.


The hierarchical nature of language requires human brain to internally parse connected-speech and incrementally construct abstract linguistic structures. Recent research revealed multiple neural processing timescales underlying grammar-based configuration of linguistic hierarchies. However, little is known about where in the whole cerebral cortex such temporally scaled neural processes occur. This study used novel magnetoencephalography source imaging techniques combined with a unique language stimulation paradigm to segregate cortical maps synchronized to 3 levels of linguistic units (i.e., words, phrases, and sentences). Notably, distinct ensembles of cortical loci were identified to feature structures at different levels. The superior temporal gyrus was found to be involved in processing all 3 linguistic levels while distinct ensembles of other brain regions were recruited to encode each linguistic level. Neural activities in the right motor cortex only followed the rhythm of monosyllabic words which have clear acoustic boundaries, whereas the left anterior temporal lobe and the left inferior frontal gyrus were selectively recruited in processing phrases or sentences. Our results ground a multi-timescale hierarchical neural processing of speech in neuroanatomical reality with specific sets of cortices responsible for different levels of linguistic units.

Keywords: MEG; linguistic hierarchy; minimum L1-norm; motor cortex.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Temporal Lobe / diagnostic imaging
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*
  • Young Adult