Abstract

People can discriminate real words from nonwords even when the latter are orthographically and phonologically word-like, presumably because words activate specific lexical and/or semantic information. We investigated the neural correlates of this identification process using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants performed a visual lexical decision task under conditions that encouraged specific word identification: Nonwords were matched to words on orthographic and phonologic characteristics, and accuracy was emphasized over speed. To identify neural responses associated with activation of nonsemantic lexical information, processing of words and nonwords with many lexical neighbors was contrasted with processing of items with no neighbors. The fMRI data showed robust differences in activation by words and word-like nonwords, with stronger word activation occurring in a distributed, left hemisphere network previously associated with semantic processing, and stronger nonword activation occurring in a posterior inferior frontal area previously associated with grapheme-to-phoneme mapping. Contrary to lexicon-based models of word recognition, there were no brain areas in which activation increased with neighborhood size. For words, activation in the left prefrontal, angular gyrus, and ventrolateral temporal areas was stronger for items without neighbors, probably because accurate responses to these items were more dependent on activation of semantic information. The results show neural correlates of access to specific word information. The absence of facilitatory lexical neighborhood effects on activation in these brain regions argues for an interpretation in terms of semantic access. Because subjects performed the same task throughout, the results are unlikely to be due to task-specific attentional, strategic, or expectancy effects.

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