The Neural Substrate of Naming Events: Effects of Processing Demands but not of Grammatical Class

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Grammatical class is a fundamental property of language, and all natural languages distinguish between nouns and verbs. Brain activation studies have provided conflicting evidence concerning the neural substrates of noun and verb processing. A major limitation of many previous imaging studies is that they did not disentangle the impact of grammatical class from the differences in semantic correlates. In order to tease apart the role of semantic and grammatical factors, we performed a functional magnetic resonance imaging study presenting Italian speakers with pictures of events and asked them to name them as 1) Infinitive Verb (e.g., mangiare [to eat]); 2) Inflected Verb (e.g., mangia [she/he eats]); and 3) Action Noun (e.g., mangiata [the eating]). We did not find any verb-specific activation. However, reliable left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) activations were found when contrasting the Action Noun with the Infinitive Verb condition. A second-level analysis indicated then that activation in left IFG was greatest for Action Nouns, intermediate for Inflected Verbs, and least for Infinitive Verbs. We conclude that, when all other factors are controlled, nouns and verbs are processed by a common neural system. In the present case, differences in left IFG activation emerge as a consequence of increasing linguistic and/or general processing demands.

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