Evidence from both neuropsychology and neuroimaging suggests that different types of information are necessary for representing and processing concrete and abstract word meanings. Both abstract and concrete concepts, however, conjointly rely on perceptual, verbal and contextual knowledge, with abstract concepts characterized by low values of imageability (IMG) (low sensory-motor grounding) and low context availability (CA) (more difficult to contextualize). Imaging studies supporting differences between abstract and concrete concepts show a greater recruitment of the left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) for abstract concepts, which has been attributed either to the representation of abstract-specific semantic knowledge or to the request for more executive control than in the case of concrete concepts. We conducted an fMRI study on 27 participants, using a lexical decision task involving both abstract and concrete words, whose IMG and CA values were explicitly modelled in separate parametric analyses. The LIFG was significantly more activated for abstract than for concrete words, and a conjunction analysis showed a common activation for words with low IMG or low CA only in the LIFG, in the same area reported for abstract words. A regional template map of brain activations was then traced for words with low IMG or low CA, and BOLD regional time-series were extracted and correlated with the specific LIFG neural activity elicited for abstract words. The regions associated to low IMG, which were functionally correlated with LIFG, were mainly in the left hemisphere, while those associated with low CA were in the right hemisphere. Finally, in order to reveal which LIFG-related network increased its connectivity with decreases of IMG or CA, we conducted generalized psychophysiological interaction analyses. The connectivity strength values extracted from each region connected with the LIFG were correlated with specific LIFG neural activity for abstract words, and a regression analysis was conducted to highlight which areas recruited by low IMG or low CA predicted the greater activation of the IFG for abstract concepts. Only the left middle temporal gyrus/angular gyrus, known to be involved in semantic processing, was a significant predictor of LIFG activity differentiating abstract from concrete words.
The results show that the abstract conceptual processing requires the interplay of multiple brain regions, necessary for both the intrinsic and extrinsic properties of abstract knowledge. The LIFG can be thus identified as the neural crossroads between different types of information equally necessary for representing processing and differentiating abstract concepts from concrete ones.