Learning takes place throughout lifetime but differs in infants and adults because of the development of the PFC, a brain region responsible for cognitive control. To test this hypothesis, adults were investigated in a language learning paradigm under inhibitory, cathodal transcranial direct current stimulation over PFC. The experiment included a learning session interspersed with test phases and a test-only session. The stimulus material required the learning of grammatical dependencies between two elements in a novel language. In a parallel design, cathodal transcranial direct current stimulation over the left PFC, right PFC, or sham stimulation was applied during the learning session but not during the test-only session. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were recorded during both sessions. Whereas no ERP learning effects were observed during the learning session, different ERP learning effects as a function of prior stimulation type were found during the test-only session, although behavioral learning success was equal across conditions. With sham stimulation, the ERP learning effect was reflected in a centro-parietal N400-like negativity indicating lexical processes. Inhibitory stimulation over the left PFC, but not over the right PFC, led to a late positivity similar to that previously observed in prelinguistic infants indicating associative learning. The present data demonstrate that adults can learn with and without cognitive control using different learning mechanisms. In the presence of cognitive control, adult language learning is lexically guided, whereas it appears to be associative in nature when PFC control is downregulated.

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