In this study, we investigated how the brain responds to task difficulty in linguistic and non-linguistic contexts. This is important for the interpretation of functional imaging studies of neuroplasticity in post-stroke aphasia, because of the inherent difficulty of matching or controlling task difficulty in studies with neurological populations. Twenty neurologically normal individuals were scanned with fMRI as they performed a linguistic task and a non-linguistic task, each of which had two levels of difficulty. Critically, the tasks were matched across domains (linguistic, non-linguistic) for accuracy and reaction time, such that the differences between the easy and difficult conditions were equivalent across domains. We found that non-linguistic demand modulated the same set of multiple demand (MD) regions that have been identified in many prior studies. In contrast, linguistic demand modulated MD regions to a much lesser extent, especially nodes belonging to the dorsal attention network. Linguistic demand modulated a subset of language regions, with the left inferior frontal gyrus most strongly modulated. The right hemisphere region homotopic to Broca’s area was also modulated by linguistic but not non-linguistic demand. When linguistic demand was mapped relative to non-linguistic demand, we also observed domain by difficulty interactions in temporal language regions as well as a widespread bilateral semantic network. In sum, linguistic and non-linguistic demand have strikingly different neural correlates. These findings can be used to better interpret studies of patients recovering from aphasia. Some reported activations in these studies may reflect task performance differences, while others can be more confidently attributed to neuroplasticity.

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Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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