From letters to composed concepts: A magnetoencephalography study of reading

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Language comprehension requires the recognition of individual words and the combination of their meanings to yield complex concepts or interpretations. This combinatory process often requires the insertion of unstated semantic material between words, based on thematic or feature knowledge. For example, the phrase horse barn is not interpreted as a blend of a horse and a barn, but specifically a barn where horses are kept. Previous neuroscientific evidence suggests that left posterior and anterior temporal cortex underpin thematic and feature-based concept knowledge, respectively, but much remains unclear about how these areas contribute to combinatory language processing. Using magnetoencephalography, we contrasted source-localized responses to modifier-noun phrases involving thematic relations versus feature modifications, while also examining how lower-level orthographic processing fed composition. Participants completed three procedures examining responses to letter-strings, adjective-noun phrases, and noun–noun combinations that varied the semantic relations between words. We found that sections of the left anterior temporal lobe, posterior temporal lobe, and cortex surrounding the angular gyrus were all engaged in the minimal composition of adjective-noun phrases, a more distributed network than in most prior studies of minimal composition. Of these regions, only the left posterior temporal lobe was additionally sensitive to implicit thematic relations between composing words, suggesting that it houses a specialized relational processing component in a wider composition network. We additionally identified a left occipitotemporal progression from orthographic to lexical processing, feeding ventral anterior areas engaged in the combination of word meanings. Finally, by examining source signal leakage, we characterized the degree to which these responses could be distinguished from one another using source estimation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5130-5153
Number of pages24
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number15
StatePublished - Oct 15 2021


  • angular gyrus
  • anterior temporal lobe
  • composition
  • magnetoencephalography
  • posterior temporal lobe
  • semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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