Neural correlates of covert and overtproduction of tense and agreement morphology: Evidence from fMRI

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Journal of Neurolinguistics





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Most neuroimaging studies examining verb morphology have focused on verb tense, with fewer examining agreement morphology, and no previous fMRI studies have investigated distinctions between past and present tense inflection. However, models of language representation and processing suggest differences in where these inflections are instantiated in the phrase structure as well as differences in the linguistic functions they serve, suggesting unique neural networks for these forms. In addition, results of available neuroimaging studies of grammatical morphology vary considerably due to methodological differences. Some studies have used overt production tasks, whereas others have used covert tasks. In the present study we examined brain activation associated with past tense and present tense/agreement morphology under overt and covert production conditions in 13 healthy adults using an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) design. Production of verbs inflected for past tense (V + −ed) and present tense/agreement (V −s) was elicited using temporal adverbs (i.e. Yesterday, Nowadays). Results showed that in healthy adults inflecting both past tense and agreement morphology (compared to a verb stem production condition) recruited not only left inferior frontal structures, but also motor and premotor cortices, and posterior parietal regions. Activation also was observed in the basal ganglia, thalamus, and the cingulate gyrus. Past tense and present tense/agreement recruited partially overlapping tissue in these regions, with distinctions observed for the two forms in frontal and parietal brain areas. We also found that activation varied with task demands, with more extensive frontal activation noted in the overt compared to the covert verb inflection task. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the neural signatures for verb inflection differ from that for verb stems alone and involve a distributed frontal and parietal network of brain regions. Further, the neural tissue recruited for instantiation of past tense versus present tense/agreement morphology is distinct, supporting linguistic theories that differentiate the two forms.

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