Areas within the left-lateralized neural network for language have been found to be sensitive to syntactic complexity in spoken and written language. Previous research has revealed that these areas are active for sign language as well, but whether these areas are specifically responsive to syntactic complexity in sign language independent of lexical processing has yet to be found. To investigate the question, we used fMRI to neuroimage deaf native signers' comprehension of 180 sign strings in American Sign Language (ASL) with a picture-probe recognition task. The ASL strings were all six signs in length but varied at three levels of syntactic complexity: sign lists, two-word sentences, and complex sentences. Syntactic complexity significantly affected comprehension and memory, both behaviorally and neurally, by facilitating accuracy and response time on the picture-probe recognition task and eliciting a left lateralized activation response pattern in anterior and posterior superior temporal sulcus (aSTS and pSTS). Minimal or absent syntactic structure reduced picture-probe recognition and elicited activation in bilateral pSTS and occipital-temporal cortex. These results provide evidence from a sign language, ASL, that the combinatorial processing of anterior STS and pSTS is supramodal in nature. The results further suggest that the neurolinguistic processing of ASL is characterized by overlapping and separable neural systems for syntactic and lexical processing.

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