The functional significance of the two prominent language-related ERP components N400 and P600 is still under debate. It has recently been suggested that one important dimension along which the two vary is in terms of automaticity versus attentional control, with N400 amplitudes reflecting more automatic and P600 amplitudes reflecting more controlled aspects of sentence comprehension. The availability of executive resources necessary for controlled processes depends on sustained attention, which fluctuates over time. Here, we thus tested whether P600 and N400 amplitudes depend on the level of sustained attention. We reanalyzed EEG and behavioral data from a sentence processing task by Sassenhagen and Bornkessel-Schlesewsky [The P600 as a correlate of ventral attention network reorientation. Cortex, 66, A3–A20, 2015], which included sentences with morphosyntactic and semantic violations. Participants read sentences phrase by phrase and indicated whether a sentence contained any type of anomaly as soon as they had the relevant information. To quantify the varying degrees of sustained attention, we extracted a moving reaction time coefficient of variation over the entire course of the task. We found that the P600 amplitude was significantly larger during periods of low reaction time variability (high sustained attention) than in periods of high reaction time variability (low sustained attention). In contrast, the amplitude of the N400 was not affected by reaction time variability. These results thus suggest that the P600 component is sensitive to sustained attention whereas the N400 component is not, which provides independent evidence for accounts suggesting that P600 amplitudes reflect more controlled and N400 amplitudes reflect more automatic aspects of sentence comprehension.

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