How the brain forms sentences
How is it that you may forget words, names but you never forget how to frame sentences. While it has long been recognized that certain areas in the brain’s left hemisphere enable us to understand and produce language...india Updated: Nov 29, 2011 16:15 IST
While it has long been recognized that certain areas in the brain’s left hemisphere enable us to understand and produce language, scientists are still figuring out exactly how those areas divvy up the highly complex processes necessary to comprehend and produce language.
Advances in brain imaging made within the last 10 years have revealed that highly complex cognitive tasks such as language processing rely not only on particular regions of the cerebral cortex, but also on the white matter
fiber pathways that connect them.
"With this new technology, scientists started to realize that in the language network, there are a lot more connecting pathways than we originally thought," said Stephen Wilson, who recently joined the University of Arizona’s department of speech, language and hearing sciences as an assistant professor.
"They are likely to have different functions because the brain is not just a homogeneous conglomerate of cells, but there hasn’t been a lot of evidence as to what kind of information is carried on the different pathways."
Working in collaboration with his colleagues at the UA, the department of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco and the Scientific Institute and University Hospital San Raffaele in Milan, Italy, Wilson discovered that not only are the connecting pathways important for language processing, but they specialize in different tasks.
Two brain areas called Broca’s region and Wernicke’s region serve as the main computing hubs underlying language processing, with dense bundles of nerve fibers linking the two, much like fiber optic cables connecting computer servers.
Working with patients suffering from language impairments because of a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, Wilsons’ team used brain imaging and language tests to disentangle the roles played by the two pathways.
“If you have damage to the lower pathway, you have damage to the lexicon and semantics,” Wilson said.
“You forget the name of things, you forget the meaning of words. But surprisingly, you’re extremely good at constructing sentences.”
“With damage to the upper pathway, the opposite is true; patients name things quite well, they know the words, they can understand them, they can remember them, but when it comes to figuring out the meaning of a complex sentence, they are going to fail.”
To find out which of the two nerve fiber bundles does what in language processing, the team combined magnetic resonance brain imaging technology to visualize damaged areas and language assessment tasks testing the participants’ ability to comprehend and produce sentences.
“Our study shows that the deficits in the ability to process sentences are above and beyond anything that could be explained by gray matter loss alone.”
“It is the first study to show that damage to one major pathway more than then other major pathway is associated with a specific deficit in one aspect of language,” he added.
The study has been recently published in the scientific journal Neuron.