Sensitivity to syntax in visual cortex

Suzanne Dikker, Hugh Rabagliati, Liina Pylkkänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the most intriguing findings on language comprehension is that violations of syntactic predictions can affect event-related potentials as early as 120 ms, in the same time-window as early sensory processing. This effect, the so-called early left-anterior negativity (ELAN), has been argued to reflect word category access and initial syntactic structure building (Friederici, 2002). In two experiments, we used magnetoencephalography to investigate whether (a) rapid word category identification relies on overt category-marking closed-class morphemes and (b) whether violations of word category predictions affect modality-specific sensory responses. Participants read sentences containing violations of word category predictions. Unexpected items varied in whether or not their word category was marked by an overt function morpheme. In Experiment 1, the amplitude of the visual evoked M100 component was increased for unexpected items, but only when word category was overtly marked by a function morpheme. Dipole modeling localized the generator of this effect to the occipital cortex. Experiment 2 replicated the main results of Experiment 1 and eliminated two non-morphology-related explanations of the M100 contrast we observed between targets containing overt category-marking and targets that lacked such morphology. Our results show that during reading, syntactically relevant cues in the input can affect activity in occipital regions at around 125 ms, a finding that may shed new light on the remarkable rapidity of language processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-321
Number of pages29
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2009


  • ELAN
  • MEG
  • Morphology
  • Parsing
  • Syntax
  • Visual M100

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


Dive into the research topics of 'Sensitivity to syntax in visual cortex'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this