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Neurolinguistics

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.

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.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Ellen Lau
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Chia-Hsuan Liao (*20)
Dates:

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.

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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?

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): William Matchin
Dates:
In fMRI, increased activation for combinatorial syntactic and semantic processing is typically observed in a set of left hemisphere brain areas: the angular gyrus (AG), the anterior temporal lobe (ATL), the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), and the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Recent work has suggested that semantic combination is supported by the ATL and the AG, with a division of labor in which AG is involved in event concepts and ATL is involved in encoding conceptual features of entities and/or more general forms of semantic combination. The current fMRI study was designed to refine hypotheses about the angular gyrus processes in question. In particular, we ask whether the AG supports the computation of argument structure (a linguistic notion that depends on a verb taking other phrases as arguments) or the computation of event concepts more broadly. To distinguish these possibilities we used a novel, lexically-matched contrast: noun phrases (NP) (the frightened boy) and verb phrases (VP) (frightened the boy), where VPs contained argument structure, denoting an event and assigning a thematic role to its argument, and NPs did not, denoting only a semantically enriched entity. Results showed that while many regions showed increased activity for NPs and VPs relative to unstructured word lists (AG, ATL, pSTS, anterior IFG), replicating evidence of their involvement in combinatorial processing, neither AG or ATL showed differences in activation between the VP and NP conditions. These results suggest that increased AG activity does not reflect the computation of argument structure per se, but are compatible with a view in which the AG represents event information denoted by words such as frightened independent of their grammatical context. By contrast, pSTS and posterior IFG did show increased activation for the VPs relative to NPs. We suggest that these effects may reflect differences in syntactic processing and working memory engaged by different structural relations.

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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.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Ellen Lau
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): William Matchin, Chris Hammerly, Christian Brodbeck
Dates:
Humans have a striking capacity to combine words into sentences that express new meanings. Previous research has identified key brain regions involved in this capacity, but little is known about the time course of activity in these regions, as hemodynamic methods such as fMRI provide little insight into temporal dynamics of neural activation. We performed an MEG experiment to elucidate the temporal dynamics of structure and content processing within four brain regions implicated by fMRI data from the same experiment: the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), the posterior temporal lobe (PTL), the anterior temporal lobe (ATL), and the anterior inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). The TPJ showed increased activity for both structure and content near the end of the sentence, consistent with a role in incremental interpretation of event semantics. The PTL, a region not often associated with core aspects of syntax, showed a strong early effect of structure, consistent with predictive parsing models, and both structural and semantic context effects on function words. These results provide converging evidence that the PTL plays an important role in lexicalized syntactic processing. The ATL and IFG, regions traditionally associated with syntax, showed minimal effects of sentence structure. The ATL, PTL and IFG all showed effects of semantic content: increased activation for real words relative to nonwords. Our fMRI-guided MEG investigation therefore helps identify syntactic and semantic aspects of sentence comprehension in the brain in both spatial and temporal dimensions.

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Primary Faculty

William Idsardi

Professor, Linguistics

1401 A Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-8376

Ellen Lau

Associate Professor, Linguistics

3416 E Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

Colin Phillips

Professor, Linguistics

1413F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-3082

Secondary Faculty

Valentine Hacquard

Professor, Linguistics

1401 F Marie Mount Hall
College Park MD, 20742

(301) 405-4935