Researchers map brain areas vital to understanding language

November 21, 2013
Researchers compared the discourse comprehension abilities of patients with damage to specific brain regions relative to patients without damage to those regions. Each image here represents one slice of the brain and the highlighted areas are those that are important for discourse comprehension. Credit: Aron Barbey

When reading text or listening to someone speak, we construct rich mental models that allow us to draw conclusions about other people, objects, actions, events, mental states and contexts. This ability to understand written or spoken language, called "discourse comprehension," is a hallmark of the human mind and central to everyday social life. In a new study, researchers uncovered the brain mechanisms that underlie discourse comprehension.

The study appears in Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

With his team, study leader Aron Barbey, a professor of neuroscience, of psychology, and of speech and hearing science at the University of Illinois, previously had mapped general intelligence, emotional intelligence and a host of other high-level cognitive functions. Barbey is the director of the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.

To investigate the regions that underlie discourse comprehension, the researchers studied a group of 145 American male Vietnam War veterans who sustained penetrating head injuries during combat. Barbey said these shrapnel-induced injuries typically produced focal brain damage, unlike injuries caused by stroke or other neurological disorders that affect multiple regions. These focal injuries allowed the researchers to pinpoint the structures that are critically important to discourse comprehension.

"Neuropsychological patients with focal brain lesions provide a valuable opportunity to study how different brain structures contribute to discourse comprehension," Barbey said.

A technique called voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping allowed the team to pool data from the veterans' CT scans to create a collective, three-dimensional map of the cerebral cortex. They divided this composite brain into units called voxels (the three-dimensional counterparts of two-dimensional pixels). This allowed them to compare the discourse comprehension abilities of patients with damage to a particular voxel or cluster of voxels with those of patients without injuries to those brain regions.

The researchers identified a network of brain areas in the frontal and parietal cortex that are essential to discourse comprehension.

"Rather than engaging brain regions that are classically involved in language processing, our results indicate that discourse comprehension depends on an executive control network that helps integrate incoming language with prior knowledge and experience," Barbey said.

Executive control, also known as executive function, refers to the ability to plan, organize and regulate one's behavior.

"The findings help us understand the neural foundations of discourse comprehension, and suggest that core elements of discourse processing emerge from a network of that support language processing and executive functions. The findings offer new insights into basic questions about the nature of discourse comprehension," Barbey said, "and could offer new targets for clinical interventions to help patients with cognitive-communication disorders.

"Discourse comprehension is a hallmark of human social behavior," Barbey said.

"By studying the mechanisms that underlie these abilities, we're able to advance our understanding of the remarkable cognitive and neural architecture from which emerges."

Explore further: Researchers map emotional intelligence in the brain

More information: "Neural mechanisms of discourse comprehension: a human lesion study," www.researchgate.net/publicati … A_human_lesion_study

Related Stories

Researchers map emotional intelligence in the brain

January 22, 2013
A new study of 152 Vietnam veterans with combat-related brain injuries offers the first detailed map of the brain regions that contribute to emotional intelligence – the ability to process emotional information and navigate ...

Researchers use brain-injury data to map intelligence in the brain

April 10, 2012
Scientists report that they have mapped the physical architecture of intelligence in the brain. Theirs is one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses so far of the brain structures vital to general intelligence and ...

Researchers find brain activity related to individual differences in reading comprehension

November 6, 2013
What makes a good reader? First, you have to know how to read the words on a page and understand them—but there's a higher-level step to reading comprehension. You have to tie together the words over time, maintaining their ...

New research reveals exactly how the human brain adapts to injury

January 16, 2013
For the first time, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI) have used a new combination of neural imaging methods to discover exactly how the human brain adapts to injury. The ...

Recommended for you

The neural codes for body movements

July 21, 2017
A small patch of neurons in the brain can encode the movements of many body parts, according to researchers in the laboratory of Caltech's Richard Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Tianqiao and Chrissy ...

Faulty support cells disrupt communication in brains of people with schizophrenia

July 20, 2017
New research has identified the culprit behind the wiring problems in the brains of people with schizophrenia. When researchers transplanted human brain cells generated from individuals diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia ...

Scientists discover combined sensory map for heat, humidity in fly brain

July 20, 2017
Northwestern University neuroscientists now can visualize how fruit flies sense and process humidity and temperature together through a "sensory map" within their brains, according to new research.

Scientists reveal how patterns of brain activity direct specific body movements

July 20, 2017
New research by Columbia scientists offers fresh insight into how the brain tells the body to move, from simple behaviors like walking, to trained movements that may take years to master. The discovery in mice advances knowledge ...

Team traces masculinization in mice to estrogen receptor in inhibitory neurons

July 20, 2017
Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have opened a black box in the brain whose contents explain one of the remarkable yet mysterious facts of life.

Speech language therapy delivered through the Internet leads to similar improvements as in-person treatment

July 20, 2017
Telerehabilitation helps healthcare professionals reach more patients in need, but some worry it doesn't offer the same quality of care as in-person treatment. This isn't the case, according to recent research by Baycrest.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.