Semantic memory and verbal working memory correlates of N400 to subordinate homographs

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N400 is an event-related brain potential that indexes operations in semantic memory conceptual space, whether elicited by language or some other representation (e.g., drawings). Language models typically propose three stages: lexical access or orthographic- and phonological-level analysis; lexical selection or word-level meaning and associate activation; and lexical integration, sentence- and discourse-level operations. The exact stage that N400 reflects is unknown, although opinion favors lexical integration over lexical selection. Surprisingly, little research has assessed relationships between neuropsychological measures of semantic memory fund of information or verbal working memory capacity and N400. Subjects performed a homograph disambiguation comprehension task with minimal working memory load. Short sentences read: The noun was adjective/verb. The nouns were either homographs or unambiguous. The adjective/verb was disambiguating for the homograph, and congruent or incongruent for the unambiguous noun. The primary noun of interest was the subordinate homograph. Comprehension of the subordinate meaning should correlate with semantic memory stores, reflecting greater knowledge. If N400 primarily reflects lexical access operations, it should also correlate with measures of semantic knowledge. If N400 reflects lexical integration, it should correlate with measures of working memory capacity. Comprehension errors were associated with semantic memory stores, but not working memory capacity. N400 was related to working memory capacity, but not semantic knowledge, suggesting that N400 primarily reflects late-stage working memory operations. N400 to subordinate disambiguating words was larger with greater working memory capacity, and thus may index the absolute capacity of working memory rather than difficulty in contextual integration.

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