'Syntactic perturbation' during production activates the right IFG, but not Broca’s area or the ATL

William Matchin, Gregory Hickok

Research on the neural organization of syntax – the core structure-building component of language – has focused on Broca’s area and the anterior temporal lobe (ATL) as the chief candidates for syntactic processing. However, these proposals have received considerable challenges. In order to better understand the neural basis of syntactic processing, we performed an fMRI experiment using a constrained sentence production task. We examined the BOLD response to sentence production for active and passive sentences, unstructured word lists, and syntactic perturbation. Perturbation involved cued restructuring of the planned syntax of a sentence mid utterance. Perturbation was designed to capture the effects of syntactic violations previously studied in sentence comprehension. Our experiment showed that Broca’s area and the ATL did not exhibit response profiles consistent with syntactic operations – we found no increase of activation in these areas for sentences > lists and perturbation. Syntactic perturbation activated a cortical-subcortical network including robust activation of the right inferior frontal gyrus (RIFG). This network is similar to one previously shown to be involved in motor response inhibition. We hypothesize that RIFG activation in our study and in previous studies of sentence comprehension is due to an inhibition mechanism that may facilitate efficient syntactic restructuring.