Exploring the Neural Dynamics Underpinning Individual Differences in Sentence Comprehension

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This study used functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate individual differences in the neural underpinnings of sentence comprehension, with a focus on neural adaptability (dynamic configuration of neural networks with changing task demands). Twenty-seven undergraduates, with varying working memory capacities and vocabularies, read sentences that were either syntactically simple or complex under conditions of varying extrinsic working memory demands (sentences alone or preceded by to-be-remembered words or nonwords). All readers showed greater neural adaptability when extrinsic working memory demands were low, suggesting that adaptability is related to resource availability. Higher capacity readers showed greater neural adaptability (greater increase in activation with increasing syntactic complexity) across conditions than did lower capacity readers. Higher capacity readers also showed better maintenance of or increase in synchronization of activation between brain regions as tasks became more demanding. Larger vocabulary was associated with more efficient use of cortical resources (reduced activation in frontal regions) in all conditions but was not associated with greater neural adaptability or synchronization. The distinct characterizations of verbal working memory capacity and vocabulary suggest that dynamic facets of brain function such as adaptability and synchronization may underlie individual differences in more general information processing abilities, whereas neural efficiency may more specifically reflect individual differences in language experience.

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