Building phrases in language production: An MEG study of simple composition

Liina Pylkkänen, Douglas K. Bemis, Estibaliz Blanco Elorrieta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although research on language production has developed detailed maps of the brain basis of single word production in both time and space, little is known about the spatiotemporal dynamics of the processes that combine individual words into larger representations during production. Studying composition in production is challenging due to difficulties both in controlling produced utterances and in measuring the associated brain responses. Here, we circumvent both problems using a minimal composition paradigm combined with the high temporal resolution of magnetoencephalography (MEG). With MEG, we measured the planning stages of simple adjective-noun phrases ('red tree'), matched list controls ('red, blue'), and individual nouns ('tree') and adjectives ('red'), with results indicating combinatorial processing in the ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and left anterior temporal lobe (LATL), two regions previously implicated for the comprehension of similar phrases. These effects began relatively quickly (~180 ms) after the presentation of a production prompt, suggesting that combination commences with initial lexical access. Further, while in comprehension, vmPFC effects have followed LATL effects, in this production paradigm vmPFC effects occurred mostly in parallel with LATL effects, suggesting that a late process in comprehension is an early process in production. Thus, our results provide a novel neural bridge between psycholinguistic models of comprehension and production that posit functionally similar combinatorial mechanisms operating in reversed order.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)371-384
Number of pages14
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2014


  • Anterior temporal lobe
  • Language production
  • Left inferior frontal gyrus
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Minimal phrases
  • Ventro-medial prefrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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