The temporal dynamics of structure and content in sentence comprehension: Evidence from fMRI-constrained MEG

William Matchin, Christian Brodbeck, Chris Hammerly, Ellen Lau

Humans have a striking capacity to combine words into sentences that express new meanings. Previous research has identified key brain regions involved in this capacity, but little is known about the time course of activity in these regions, as hemodynamic methods such as fMRI provide little insight into temporal dynamics of neural activation. We performed an MEG experiment to elucidate the temporal dynamics of structure and content processing within four brain regions implicated by fMRI data from the same experiment: the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), the posterior temporal lobe (PTL), the anterior temporal lobe (ATL), and the anterior inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). The TPJ showed increased activity for both structure and content near the end of the sentence, consistent with a role in incremental interpretation of event semantics. The PTL, a region not often associated with core aspects of syntax, showed a strong early effect of structure, consistent with predictive parsing models, and both structural and semantic context effects on function words. These results provide converging evidence that the PTL plays an important role in lexicalized syntactic processing. The ATL and IFG, regions traditionally associated with syntax, showed minimal effects of sentence structure. The ATL, PTL and IFG all showed effects of semantic content: increased activation for real words relative to nonwords. Our fMRI-guided MEG investigation therefore helps identify syntactic and semantic aspects of sentence comprehension in the brain in both spatial and temporal dimensions.