The time-course and spatial distribution of brain activity associated with sentence processing

Jonathan Brennan, Liina Pylkkänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sentence comprehension involves a host of highly interrelated processes, including syntactic parsing, semantic composition, and pragmatic inferencing. In neuroimaging, a primary paradigm for examining the brain bases of sentence processing has been to compare brain activity elicited by sentences versus unstructured lists of words. These studies commonly find an effect of increased activity for sentences in the anterior temporal lobes (aTL). Together with neuropsychological data, these findings have motivated the hypothesis that the aTL is engaged in sentence level combinatorics. Combinatoric processing during language comprehension, however, occurs within tens and hundreds of milliseconds, i.e., at a time-scale much faster than the temporal resolution of hemodynamic measures. Here, we examined the time-course of sentence-level processing using magnetoencephalography (MEG) to better understand the temporal profile of activation in this common paradigm and to test a key prediction of the combinatoric hypothesis: because sentences are interpreted incrementally, word-by-word, activity associated with basic linguistic combinatorics should be time-locked to word-presentation. Our results reveal increased anterior temporal activity for sentences compared to word lists beginning approximately 250. ms after word onset. We also observed increased activation in a network of other brain areas, extending across posterior temporal, inferior frontal, and ventral medial areas. These findings confirm a key prediction of the combinatoric hypothesis for the aTL and further elucidate the spatio-temporal characteristics of sentence-level computations in the brain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1139-1148
Number of pages10
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2 2012


  • ATL
  • LIFG
  • Language comprehension
  • MEG
  • Sentence processing
  • VmPFC

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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