Functional imaging studies of single word production have consistently reported activation of the lateral prefrontal and cingulate cortex. Its contribution has been shown to be sensitive to task demands, which can be manipulated by the degree of response specification. Compared with classical verbal fluency, free word association relies less on response restrictions but to a greater extent on associative binding processes, usually subserved by the hippocampus. To elucidate the relevance of the frontal and medial-temporal areas during verbal retrieval tasks, we applied varying degrees of response specification. During fMRI data acquisition, 18 subjects performed a free verbal association (FVA), a semantic verbal fluency (SVF) task, and a phonological verbal fluency (PVF) task. Externally guided word production served as a baseline condition to control for basic articulatory and reading processes. As expected, increased brain activity was observed in the left lateral and bilateral medial frontal cortices for SVF and PVF. The anterior cingulate gyrus was the only structure common to both fluency tasks in direct comparison to the less restricted FVA task. The hippocampus was engaged during associative and semantic retrieval. Interestingly, hippocampal activity was selectively evident during FVA in direct comparison to SVF when it was controlled for stimulus–response relations. The current data confirm the role of the left prefrontal–cingulate network in constrained word production. Hippocampal activity during spontaneous word production is a novel finding and seems to be dependent on the retrieval process (free vs. constrained) rather than the variety of stimulus–response relationships that is involved.

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