Studies of patients with brain damage suggest that specific brain regions may be differentially involved in representing/processing certain categories of conceptual knowledge. With regard to the dissociation that has received the most attention—between the domains of living things and artifacts—a debate continues as to whether these category-specific effects reflect neural implementation of categories directly or some more basic properties of brain organization. The present positron emission tomography (PET) study addressed this issue by probing explicitly for differential activation associated with written names of objects from the domains of living things or artifacts during similarity judgments about different attributes of these objects. Subjects viewed triads of written object names and selected one of two response words as more similar to a target word according to a specified perceptual attribute (typical color of the objects) or an associative attribute (typical location of the objects). The control task required a similarity judgment about the number of syllables in the target and response words. All tasks were performed under two different stimulus conditions: names of living things and names of artifacts. Judgments for both domains and both attribute types activated an extensive, distributed, left-hemisphere semantic system, but showed some differential activation-particularly as a function of attribute type. The left temporooccipito-parietal junction showed enhanced activity for judgments about object location, whereas the left anteromedial temporal cortex and caudate nucleus were differentially activated by color judgments. Smaller differences were seen for living and nonliving domains, the positive findings being largely consistent with previous studies using objects; in particular, words denoting artifacts produced enhanced activation in the left posterior middle temporal gyrus. These results suggest that, within a distributed conceptual system activated by words, the more prominent neural distinction relates to type of attribute.

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