The role of the ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex in idiom comprehension: An rTMS study

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Previous research is equivocal with respect to the neural substrates of idiom processing. Particularly elusive is the role of the left ventro-lateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), a region implicated in semantic control generally. Although fMRI studies have shown that the left VLPFC is active during idiom processing (see Rapp et al. (2012), for review), rTMS studies have failed to corroborate a clear role of this prefrontal region (e.g., Oliveri et al., 2004).

We investigated this issue using a semantic meaningfulness judgment task that compared idiom comprehension following rTMS-stimulation to the left VLPFC relative to a control site (vertex). We also investigated whether individual differences in general cognitive capacity among comprehenders modulated the effects of rTMS.

The results indicate that left VLPFC stimulation particularly affected the processing of low-familiar idioms, possibly because these items involve a maximal semantic conflict between a salient literal and less-known figurative meaning. Of note, this pattern only emerged for comprehenders with higher cognitive control capacity, possibly because they were more likely to activate or maintain multiple semantic representations during idiom processing, which required VLPFC integrity. Taken together, the results support the importance of the left VLPFC to idiom processing.

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