Functional significance of the semantic P600: evidence from the event-related brain potential source localization

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Previous event-related potentials studies of sentence comprehension have usually associated syntactic repair/reanalysis processes with the P600 component. However, the functional significance of the P600 was recently questioned on the basis of the observation of P600 effects in response to the processing of semantically anomalous sentences. In the present study, we investigated the functional significance of the ‘semantic P600’ using a semantic violation paradigm with a focus-on-syntax instruction. Using a source localization analysis, we tested three alternative hypotheses on the function of the P600: (i) a syntactic function, (ii) an executive function, and (iii) a semantic/integrational function. We assumed that distinct neuronal generators should reflect each of these functions. Although the syntactic generators are expected to be mainly located in the left inferior frontal gyrus, the semantic generators should be observed in the left superior temporal gyrus as well as in the right anterior prefrontal cortex (semantic retrieval); moreover, the generator of executive function (conflict monitoring) should be found in the anterior cingulate cortex. Critically, we defined a dipole model using 17 dipoles, 14 of which were placed in the three regions of interest corresponding to our hypotheses, namely, syntactic, executive, and semantic regions. Our data showed that the P600 effect was significant in the anterior cingulate cortex and marginally significant in the right anterior prefrontal cortex. This finding suggests that the P600 might reflect more general mechanisms of conflict monitoring and semantic reinterpretation leading to a retrieval of world knowledge from long-term memory rather purely syntactic processes.

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