Functional neuroimaging has demonstrated reduced activation correlated with behavioral priming effects, a finding generally interpreted in terms of facilitated retrieval of target items in the context of related primes. Without a neutral prime, however, one cannot separate facilitatory effects of related primes from inhibitory effects of unrelated primes. Here we report an auditory semantic priming paradigm with congruent (“The boy bounced the ball”), neutral (“The next item is ball”), and incongruent (“Pasta is my favorite kind of ball”) sentence trials. As previously reported, reduced left inferior prefrontal cortex activation was observed for congruent relative to incongruent trials; however, the neutral condition allowed us to show that the effect arose from increased activation in the incongruent condition rather than reduced activation for congruent trials. Our results suggest that the left inferior prefrontal cortex inhibits interference from prepotent representations in order to select a task-appropriate target, and is consistent with its broader role in behavioral inhibition.

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