Linguists often take their object of study to be mental representations. Neurolinguistics, or the cognitive neuroscience of language, measures brain activity to probe these representations.
Neurophysiological techniques can give us more precise information about the time course of language processing or allow us to measure subtle perceptual distinctions without the need for an artificial task. We can also use these techniques to ask questions about the neural implementation of language itself. Where are phonemic, semantic and syntactic representations stored? What kind of neural code is used to concatenate smaller pieces into a larger structure? What is the wiring between areas that allows different types of information to contribute to disambiguation? And, are there brain structures that are innately designated for language? Much is still unknown about the measures themselves and therefore cognitive neuroscience studies of language can also contribute more broadly to developing a better understanding of techniques like MEG and fMRI.
Faculty and students at Maryland engage in many of these questions, often by examining a language other than English, when that language is better suited to addressing a problem of interest. The department was one of the first sites in the country to have a fully-staffed MEG (magnetoencephalography) facility devoted to research. By recording changes in the magnetic field around the head associated with brain activity, researchers at Maryland have gained significant insights into the processing of auditory, phonological, morphological and lexical-semantic information (e.g., using Turkish to demonstrate that some dimensions of vowel space are paralleled in the location of the early MEG response). The department also houses an EEG (electroencephalography) lab for recording ERPs (event-related potentials) on the scalp. ERP research in the department has examined many aspects of sentence comprehension, including the relative independence of syntactic and semantic processing (in Spanish and Chinese) and differential predictors of tense marking (in Hindi), and there is growing interest in using ERP measures to test computational models of linguistic knowledge. Maryland researchers also have access to a third major non-invasive cognitive neuroscience technique at the Maryland Neuroimaging Center, with state-of-the-art MRI/fMRI facilities. This center opens the door for multimodal imaging research that can combine the temporal precision of EEG/MEG with the spatial specificity of fMRI to provide a more complete view of language processing in the brain.
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Enough time to get results? An ERP investigation of prediction with complex events
How quickly can verb-argument relations be computed to impact predictions of a subsequent argument? This paper examines the question by comparing two kinds of compound verbs in Mandarin, and neural responses to the following direct object.
How quickly can verb-argument relations be computed to impact predictions of a subsequent argument? We take advantage of the substantial differences in verb-argument structure provided by Mandarin, whose compound verbs encode complex event relations, such as resultatives (kid bit-broke lip: 'the kid bit his lip such that it broke') and coordinates (store owner hit-scolded employee 'the store owner hit and scolded an employee'). We tested sentences in which the object noun could be predicted on the basis of the preceding compound verb, and used N400 responses to the noun to index successful prediction. By varying the delay between verb and noun, we show that prediction is delayed in the resultative context (broken-BY-biting) relative to the coordinate one (hitting-AND-scolding). These results present a first step towards temporally dissociating the fine-grained subcomputations required to parse and interpret verb-argument relations.
Same words, different structures: An fMRI investigation of argument relations and the angular gyrus
fMRI research has implicated the angular gyrus of the left hemisphere in the computation of event concepts. Might its role be more specifically the computation of argument structure, a specifically linguistic relation?
The temporal dynamics of structure and content in sentence comprehension: Evidence from fMRI-constrained MEG
fMRI implicates the TPJ, PTL, ATL and IFG regions of the left hemisphere in the processing of linguistic structure. But what are the temporal dynamics of their involvement? This MEG study provides some initial answers.