In previous functional neuroimaging studies, left anterior temporal and temporal-parietal areas responded more strongly to sentences than to randomly ordered lists of words. The smaller response for word lists could be explained by either (1) less activation of syntactic processes due to the absence of syntactic structure in the random word lists or (2) less activation of semantic processes resulting from failure to combine the content words into a global meaning. To test these two explanations, we conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging study in which word order and combinatorial word meaning were independently manipulated during auditory comprehension. Subjects heard six different stimuli: normal sentences, semantically incongruent sentences in which content words were randomly replaced with other content words, pseudoword sentences, and versions of these three sentence types in which word order was randomized to remove syntactic structure. Effects of syntactic structure (greater activation to sentences than to word lists) were observed in the left anterior superior temporal sulcus and left angular gyrus. Semantic effects (greater activation to semantically congruent stimuli than either incongruent or pseudoword stimuli) were seen in widespread, bilateral temporal lobe areas and the angular gyrus. Of the two regions that responded to syntactic structure, the angular gyrus showed a greater response to semantic structure, suggesting that reduced activation for word lists in this area is related to a disruption in semantic processing. The anterior temporal lobe, on the other hand, was relatively insensitive to manipulations of semantic structure, suggesting that syntactic information plays a greater role in driving activation in this area.

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