Comprehension of concrete and abstract words in semantic dementia.
ABSTRACT: The vast majority of brain-injured patients with semantic impairment have better comprehension of concrete than abstract words. In contrast, several patients with semantic dementia (SD), who show circumscribed atrophy of the anterior temporal lobes bilaterally, have been reported to show reverse imageability effects, that is, relative preservation of abstract knowledge. Although these reports largely concern individual patients, some researchers have recently proposed that superior comprehension of abstract concepts is a characteristic feature of SD. This would imply that the anterior temporal lobes are particularly crucial for processing sensory aspects of semantic knowledge, which are associated with concrete not abstract concepts. However, functional neuroimaging studies of healthy participants do not unequivocally predict reverse imageability effects in SD because the temporal poles sometimes show greater activation for more abstract concepts. The authors examined a case-series of 11 SD patients on a synonym judgment test that orthogonally varied the frequency and imageability of the items. All patients had higher success rates for more imageable as well as more frequent words, suggesting that (1) the anterior temporal lobes underpin semantic knowledge for both concrete and abstract concepts, (2) more imageable items--perhaps because of their richer multimodal representations--are typically more robust in the face of global semantic degradation and (3) reverse imageability effects are not a characteristic feature of SD.
Project description:Space and shape are distinct perceptual categories. In language, perceptual information can also be used to describe abstract semantic concepts like a "rising income" (space) or a "square personality" (shape). Despite being inherently concrete, co-speech gestures depicting space and shape can accompany concrete or abstract utterances. Here, we investigated the way that abstractness influences the neural processing of the perceptual categories of space and shape in gestures. Thus, we tested the hypothesis that the neural processing of perceptual categories is highly dependent on language context. In a two-factorial design, we investigated the neural basis for the processing of gestures containing shape (SH) and spatial information (SP) when accompanying concrete (c) or abstract (a) verbal utterances. During fMRI data acquisition participants were presented with short video clips of the four conditions (cSP, aSP, cSH, aSH) while performing an independent control task. Abstract (a) as opposed to concrete (c) utterances activated temporal lobes bilaterally and the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) for both shape-related (SH) and space-related (SP) utterances. An interaction of perceptual category and semantic abstractness in a more anterior part of the left IFG and inferior part of the posterior temporal lobe (pTL) indicates that abstractness strongly influenced the neural processing of space and shape information. Despite the concrete visual input of co-speech gestures in all conditions, space and shape information is processed differently depending on the semantic abstractness of its linguistic context.
Project description:Social concepts such as "tactless" or "honorable" enable us to describe our own as well as others' social behaviors. The prevailing view is that this abstract social semantic knowledge is mainly subserved by the same medial prefrontal regions that are considered essential for mental state attribution and self-reflection. Nevertheless, neurodegeneration of the anterior temporal cortex typically leads to impairments of social behavior as well as general conceptual knowledge. By using functional MRI, we demonstrate that the anterior temporal lobe represents abstract social semantic knowledge in agreement with this patient evidence. The bilateral superior anterior temporal lobes (Brodmann's area 38) are selectively activated when participants judge the meaning relatedness of social concepts (e.g., honor-brave) as compared with concepts describing general animal functions (e.g., nutritious-useful). Remarkably, only activity in the superior anterior temporal cortex, but not the medial prefrontal cortex, correlates with the richness of detail with which social concepts describe social behavior. Furthermore, this anterior temporal lobe activation is independent of emotional valence, whereas medial prefrontal regions show enhanced activation for positive social concepts. Our results demonstrate that the superior anterior temporal cortex plays a key role in social cognition by providing abstract conceptual knowledge of social behaviors. We further speculate that these abstract conceptual representations can be associated with different contexts of social actions and emotions through integration with frontolimbic circuits to enable flexible evaluations of social behavior.
Project description:. Abstract, unlike concrete, nouns refer to notions beyond our perception. Even though there is no consensus among linguists as to what exactly constitutes a concrete or abstract word, neuroscientists found clear evidence of a "concreteness" effect. This can, for instance, be seen in patients with language impairments due to brain injury or developmental disorder who are capable of perceiving one category better than another. Even though the results are inconclusive, neuroimaging studies on healthy subjects also provide a spatial and temporal account of differences in the processing of abstract versus concrete words. A description of the neural pathways during abstract word reading, the manner in which the connectivity patterns develop over the different stages of lexical and semantic processing compared to that of concrete word processing are still debated. We conducted a high-density EEG study on 24 healthy young volunteers using an implicit categorization task. From this, we obtained high spatio-temporal resolution data and, by means of source reconstruction, reduced the effect of signal mixing observed on scalp level. A multivariate, time-varying and directional method of analyzing connectivity based on the concept of Granger Causality (Partial Directed Coherence) revealed a dynamic network that transfers information from the right superior occipital lobe along the ventral and dorsal streams towards the anterior temporal and orbitofrontal lobes of both hemispheres. Some regions along these pathways appear to be primarily involved in either receiving or sending information. A clear difference in information transfer of abstract and concrete words was observed during the time window of semantic processing, specifically for information transferred towards the left anterior temporal lobe. Further exploratory analysis confirmed a generally stronger connectivity pattern for processing concrete words. We believe our study could guide future research towards a more refined theory of abstract word processing in the brain.
Project description:Semantic cognition is underpinned by regions involved in representing conceptual knowledge and executive control areas that provide regulation of this information according to current task requirements. Using distortion-corrected fMRI, we investigated the contributions of these two systems to abstract and concrete word comprehension. We contrasted semantic decisions made either with coherent contextual support, which encouraged retrieval of a rich conceptual representation, or with irrelevant contextual information, which instead maximised demands on control processes. Inferior prefrontal cortex was activated more when decisions were made in the presence of irrelevant context, suggesting that this region is crucial for the semantic control functions required to select appropriate aspects of meaning in the face of competing information. It also exhibited greater activation for abstract words, which reflects the fact that abstract words tend to have variable, context-dependent meanings that place higher demands on control processes. In contrast, anterior temporal regions (ATL) were most active when decisions were made with the benefit of a coherent context, suggesting a representational role. There was a graded shift in concreteness effects in this region, with dorsolateral areas particularly active for abstract words and ventromedial areas preferentially activated by concrete words. This supports the idea that concrete concepts are closely associated with visual experience and abstract concepts with auditory-verbal information; and that sub-regions of the ATL display graded specialisation for these two types of knowledge. Between these two extremes, we identified significant activations for both word types in ventrolateral ATL. This area is known to be involved in representing knowledge for concrete concepts; here we established that it is also activated by abstract concepts. These results converge with data from rTMS and neuropsychological investigations in demonstrating that representational content and task demands influence recruitment of different areas in the semantic network.
Project description:Typically, processing is more accurate and efficient for concrete than abstract concepts in both healthy adults and individuals with aphasia. While, concreteness effects have been thoroughly documented with respect to noun processing, other words classes have received little attention despite tending to be less concrete than nouns. The aim of the current study was to explore concrete-abstract differences in verbs and identify their neural correlates in post-stroke aphasia. Given the dearth of comprehension tests for verbs, a battery of neuropsychological tests was developed in this study to assess the comprehension of concrete and abstract verbs. Specifically, a sensitive verb synonym judgment test was generated that varied both the items' imageability and frequency, and a picture-to-word matching test with numerous concrete verbs. Normative data were then collected and the tests were administered to a cohort of 48 individuals with chronic post-stroke aphasia to explore the behavioural patterns and neural correlates of verb processing. The results revealed significantly better comprehension of concrete than abstract verbs, aligning with the existing aphasiological literature on noun processing. In addition, the patients performed better during verb comprehension than verb production. Lesion-symptom correlational analyses revealed common areas that support processing of concrete and abstract verbs, including the left anterior temporal lobe, posterior supramarginal gyrus and superior lateral occipital cortex. A direct contrast between them revealed additional regions with graded differences. Specifically, the left frontal regions were associated with processing abstract verbs; whereas, the left posterior temporal and occipital regions were associated with processing concrete verbs. Moreover, overlapping and distinct neural correlates were identified in association with the comprehension and production of concrete verbs. These patient findings align with data from functional neuroimaging and neuro-stimulation, and existing models of language organisation.
Project description:Size is an important visuo-spatial characteristic of the physical world. In language processing, previous research has demonstrated a processing advantage for words denoting semantically "big" (e.g., jungle) versus "small" (e.g., needle) concrete objects. We investigated whether semantic size plays a role in the recognition of words expressing abstract concepts (e.g., truth). Semantically "big" and "small" concrete and abstract words were presented in a lexical decision task. Responses to "big" words, regardless of their concreteness, were faster than those to "small" words. Critically, we explored the relationship between semantic size and affective characteristics of words as well as their influence on lexical access. Although a word's semantic size was correlated with its emotional arousal, the temporal locus of arousal effects may depend on the level of concreteness. That is, arousal seemed to have an earlier (lexical) effect on abstract words, but a later (post-lexical) effect on concrete words. Our findings provide novel insights into the semantic representations of size in abstract concepts and highlight that affective attributes of words may not always index lexical access.
Project description:The concreteness effect (CE) describes a processing advantage for concrete over abstract words. Electrophysiologically, the CE manifests in higher N400 and N700 amplitudes for concrete words. The contribution of the stimulus-inherent imageability to the electrophysiological correlates of the CE is not yet fully unraveled. This EEG study focused on the role of imageability irrespective of concreteness by examining the effects of training-induced visual imageability on the processing of novel words. In two training sessions, 21 healthy participants learned to associate novel words with pictures of novel objects as well as electron-microscopical structures and were additionally familiarized with novel words without any picture association. During a post-training EEG session, participants categorized trained novel words with or without picture association, together with real concrete and abstract words. Novel words associated with novel object pictures during the training elicited a higher N700 than familiarized novel words without picture-association. Crucially, this training-induced N700 effect resembled the CE found for real words. However, a CE on the N400 was found for real words, but no effect of imageability in novel words. The results suggest that the N400 CE for real words depends on the integration of multiple semantic features, while mere visual imageability might contribute to the CE in the N700 time window.
Project description:In the healthy human brain, the processing of language is strongly lateralised, usually to the left hemisphere, while the processing of complex non-linguistic sounds recruits brain regions bilaterally. Here we asked whether the anterior temporal lobes, strongly implicated in semantic processing, are critical to this special treatment of spoken words. Nine patients with semantic dementia (SD) and fourteen age-matched controls underwent magnetoencephalography and structural MRI. Voxel based morphometry demonstrated the stereotypical pattern of SD: severe grey matter loss restricted to the anterior temporal lobes, with the left side more affected. During magnetoencephalography, participants listened to word sets in which identity and meaning were ambiguous until word completion, for example PLAYED versus PLATE. Whereas left-hemispheric responses were similar across groups, patients demonstrated increased right hemisphere activity 174-294 msec after stimulus disambiguation. Source reconstructions confirmed recruitment of right-sided analogues of language regions in SD: atrophy of anterior temporal lobes was associated with increased activity in right temporal pole, middle temporal gyrus, inferior frontal gyrus and supramarginal gyrus. Overall, the results indicate that anterior temporal lobes are necessary for normal and efficient lateralised processing of word identity by the language network.
Project description:The neural principles behind semantic category representation are still under debate. Dominant theories mostly focus on distinguishing concrete from abstract concepts but, in such theories, divisions into categories of concrete concepts are more developed than for their abstract counterparts. An encompassing theory on semantic category representation could be within reach when charting the semantic attributes that are capable of describing both concept types. A good candidate are the three semantic dimensions defined by Osgood (potency, valence, arousal). However, to show to what extent they affect semantic processing, specific neuroimaging tools are required. Electroencephalography (EEG) is on par with the temporal resolution of cognitive behavior and source reconstruction. Using high-density set-ups, it is able to yield a spatial resolution in the scale of millimeters, sufficient to identify anatomical brain parcellations that could differentially contribute to semantic category representation. Cognitive neuroscientists traditionally focus on scalp domain analysis and turn to source reconstruction when an effect in the scalp domain has been detected. Traditional methods will potentially miss out on the fine-grained effects of semantic features as they are possibly obscured by the mixing of source activity due to volume conduction. For this reason, we have developed a mass-univariate analysis in the source domain using a mixed linear effect model. Our analyses reveal distinct networks of sources for different semantic features that are active during different stages of lexico-semantic processing of single words. With our method we identified differences in the spatio-temporal activation patterns of abstract and concrete words, high and low potency words, high and low valence words, and high and low arousal words, and in this way shed light on how word categories are represented in the brain.
Project description:How do we represent information without sensory features? How are abstract concepts like "freedom", devoid of external perceptible referents, represented in the brain? Here, to address the role of sensory information in the neural representation of concepts, we used fMRI to investigate how people born blind process concepts whose referents are imperceptible to them because of their visual nature ("rainbow", "red"). Activity for these concepts was compared to that of sensorially-perceptible referents ("rain"), classical abstract concepts ("justice") and concrete concepts ("cup"), providing a gradient between fully concrete and fully abstract concepts in the blind. We find that anterior temporal lobe (ATL) responses track concept perceptibility and objecthood: preference for imperceptible object concepts was found in dorsal ATL, for abstract (non-object, non-referential) concepts in lateral ATL, and for perceptible concepts in medial ATL. These findings point to a new division-of-labor among aspects of ATL in representing conceptual properties that are abstract in different ways.