The structure of human language is inherently hierarchical.The left posterior inferior frontal gyrus (LpIFG) is proposed to be a core region for constructing syntactic hierarchies. However, it remains unclear whether LpIFG plays a causal role in syntactic processing in Mandarin Chinese and whether its contribution depends on syntactic complexity, working memory, or both. We addressed these questions by applying inhibitory continuous theta-burst stimulation (cTBS) over LpIFG.Thirty-two participants processed sentences containing embedded relative clauses (i.e., complex syntactic processing), syntactically simpler coordinated sentences (i.e., simple syntactic processing), and non-hierarchical word lists (i.e., word list processing) after receiving real or sham cTBS. We found that cTBS significantly increased the coefficient of variation (CV), a representative index of processing stability, in complex syntactic processing (esp., when subject relative clause was embedded) but not in the other two conditions. No significant changes in d'and reaction time (RT) were detected in these conditions. The findings suggest that (a) inhibitory effect of cTBS on the left pIFG might be prominent in perturbing the complex syntactic processing stability but subtle in altering the processing quality; (b) the causal role of the LpIFG seems to be specific for syntactic processing rather than working memory capacity, further evidencing their separability in LpIFG.Collectively, these results support the notion of the LpIFG as a core region for complex syntactic processing across languages.

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Handling Editor: Roy Hamilton

These authors contributed equally to the current work.

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These authors share the senior-authorship.

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