Syntactic processing is distributed across the language system

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Language comprehension recruits an extended set of regions in the human brain. Is syntactic processing localized to a particular region or regions within this system, or is it distributed across the entire ensemble of brain regions that support high-level linguistic processing? Evidence from aphasic patients is more consistent with the latter possibility: damage to many different language regions and to white-matter tracts connecting them has been shown to lead to similar syntactic comprehension deficits. However, brain imaging investigations of syntactic processing continue to focus on particular regions within the language system, often parts of Broca's area and regions in the posterior temporal cortex. We hypothesized that, whereas the entire language system is in fact sensitive to syntactic complexity, the effects in some regions may be difficult to detect because of the overall lower response to language stimuli. Using an individual-subjects approach to localizing the language system, shown in prior work to be more sensitive than traditional group analyses, we indeed find responses to syntactic complexity throughout this system, consistent with the findings from the neuropsychological patient literature. We speculate that such distributed nature of syntactic processing could perhaps imply that syntax is inseparable from other aspects of language comprehension (e.g., lexico-semantic processing), in line with current linguistic and psycholinguistic theories and evidence. Neuroimaging investigations of syntactic processing thus need to expand their scope to include the entire system of high-level language processing regions in order to fully understand how syntax is instantiated in the human brain.

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