The role of left prefrontal cortex in language and memory

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1998 Feb 3;95(3):906-13. doi: 10.1073/pnas.95.3.906.


This article reviews attempts to characterize the mental operations mediated by left inferior prefrontal cortex, especially the anterior and inferior portion of the gyrus, with the functional neuroimaging techniques of positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Activations in this region occur during semantic, relative to nonsemantic, tasks for the generation of words to semantic cues or the classification of words or pictures into semantic categories. This activation appears in the right prefrontal cortex of people known to be atypically right-hemisphere dominant for language. In this region, activations are associated with meaningful encoding that leads to superior explicit memory for stimuli and deactivations with implicit semantic memory (repetition priming) for words and pictures. New findings are reported showing that patients with global amnesia show deactivations in the same region associated with repetition priming, that activation in this region reflects selection of a response from among numerous relative to few alternatives, and that activations in a portion of this region are associated specifically with semantic relative to phonological processing. It is hypothesized that activations in left inferior prefrontal cortex reflect a domain-specific semantic working memory capacity that is invoked more for semantic than nonsemantic analyses regardless of stimulus modality, more for initial than for repeated semantic analysis of a word or picture, more when a response must be selected from among many than few legitimate alternatives, and that yields superior later explicit memory for experiences.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amnesia / physiopathology
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Semantics