Reliable individual-level neural markers of high-level language processing: A necessary precursor for relating neural variability to behavioral and genetic variability

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Abstract

The majority of functional neuroimaging investigations aim to characterize an average human brain. However, another important goal of cognitive neuroscience is to understand the ways in which individuals differ from one another and the significance of these differences. This latter goal is given special weight by the recent reconceptualization of neurological disorders where sharp boundaries are no longer drawn either between health and neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders, or among different disorders (e.g., Insel et al., 2010). Consequently, even the variability in the healthy population can inform our understanding of brain disorders. However, because the use of functional neural markers is still in its infancy, no consensus presently exists about which measures (e.g., effect size?, extent of activation?, degree of lateralization?) are the best ones to use. We here attempt to address this question with respect to one large-scale neural system: the set of brain regions in the frontal and temporal cortices that jointly support high-level linguistic processing (e.g., Binder et al., 1997; Fedorenko, Hsieh, Nieto-Castanon, Whitfield-Gabrieli, & Kanwisher, 2010). In particular, using data from 150 individuals all of whom had performed a language “localizer” task contrasting sentences and nonword sequences (Fedorenko et al., 2010), we: a) characterize the distributions of the values for four key neural measures of language activity (region effect sizes, region volumes, lateralization based on effect sizes, and lateralization based on volumes); b) test the reliability of these measures in a subset of 32 individuals who were scanned across two sessions; c) evaluate the relationship among the different regions of the language system; and d) evaluate the relationship among the different neural measures. Based on our results, we provide some recommendations for future studies of brain-behavior and brain-genes relationships. Although some of our conclusions are specific to the language system, others (e.g., the fact that effect-size-based measures tend to be more reliable than volume-based measures) are likely to generalize to the rest of the brain.

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