Differential contributions of left-hemispheric language regions to basic semantic composition

Brain Struct Funct. 2021 Mar;226(2):501-518. doi: 10.1007/s00429-020-02196-2. Epub 2021 Jan 30.


Semantic composition, the ability to combine single words to form complex meanings, is a core feature of human language. Despite growing interest in the basis of semantic composition, the neural correlates and the interaction of regions within this network remain a matter of debate. We designed a well-controlled two-word fMRI paradigm in which phrases only differed along the semantic dimension while keeping syntactic information alike. Healthy participants listened to meaningful ("fresh apple"), anomalous ("awake apple") and pseudoword phrases ("awake gufel") while performing an implicit and an explicit semantic task. We identified neural signatures for distinct processes during basic semantic composition. When lexical information is kept constant across conditions and the evaluation of phrasal plausibility is examined (meaningful vs. anomalous phrases), a small set of mostly left-hemispheric semantic regions, including the anterior part of the left angular gyrus, is found active. Conversely, when the load of lexical information-independently of phrasal plausibility-is varied (meaningful or anomalous vs. pseudoword phrases), conceptual combination involves a wide-spread left-hemispheric network comprising executive semantic control regions and general conceptual representation regions. Within this network, the functional coupling between the left anterior inferior frontal gyrus, the bilateral pre-supplementary motor area and the posterior angular gyrus specifically increases for meaningful phrases relative to pseudoword phrases. Stronger effects in the explicit task further suggest task-dependent neural recruitment. Overall, we provide a separation between distinct nodes of the semantic network, whose functional contributions depend on the type of compositional process under analysis.

Keywords: Angular gyrus; Conceptual combination; Functional connectivity; Meaning composition; fMRI.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Reading*
  • Young Adult