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Active perception: sensorimotor circuits as a cortical basis for language

Abstract

Action and perception are functionally linked in the brain, but a hotly debated question is whether perception and comprehension of stimuli depend on motor circuits. Brain language mechanisms are ideal for addressing this question. Neuroimaging investigations have found specific motor activations when subjects understand speech sounds, word meanings and sentence structures. Moreover, studies involving transcranial magnetic stimulation and patients with lesions affecting inferior frontal regions of the brain have shown contributions of motor circuits to the comprehension of phonemes, semantic categories and grammar. These data show that language comprehension benefits from frontocentral action systems, indicating that action and perception circuits are interdependent.

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Figure 1: Cortical anatomy underlying language processing: from monkeys to humans.
Figure 2: Speech sounds in motor systems.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Garagnani, I. Laka, R. Wise, R. Moseley and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. This work is supported by the Medical Research Council (UK) (U1055.04.003.00001.01) to F.P., by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Ferrara to L.F. and by the European Community (Nestcom (NEST-2005-PATH-HUM contract 043,374) to F.P. and Robot-cub, Contact, Poeticon to L.F.).

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Sensorimotor neurons and action–perception circuits (PDF 202 kb)

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A role for action in perception? Controversies and clinical data (PDF 217 kb)

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Glossary

Motor cortex

The portion of the frontal cortex that controls movements and is therefore classically considered an output area of the cortex. It includes primary motor, premotor and supplementary motor areas.

Sensorimotor neuron

A neuron that is activated both by sensory stimulation — sometimes through various modalities — and during action execution. Mirror neurons and canonical neurons are special types of sensorimotor neurons.

Mirror neuron

A neuron that activates during action execution and during the observation of another individual performing a similar action. Some mirror neurons also fire during listening to action-related sounds.

Syntactic

Relating to the rules of syntax — the grammatical arrangement of words and phrases in a sentence, which affects relationships of meaning. For example, changing the placement of a word or phrase can change the meaning.

Phonological

Relating to the scientific discipline of phonology, which studies the sound structure of languages. The term is also used to refer to the sound structure of a language itself.

Semantics

Scientific discipline studying the meaning of words and, in a wider use of the term, meaning in general. The term is also used as a synonym of 'meaning'.

Broca's area

The posterior part of the inferior frontal gyrus. It includes the cytoarchitectonically defined Brodmann area 44 (BA 44) and BA 45 and is involved in speech production.

Phoneme

A speech sound and smallest unit of speech that can be used to distinguish between meaningful words in a given language.

Perisylvian cortex

The brain region surrounding the sylvian fissure which, in the left hemisphere of almost all right-handed people and in most left-handed people, is most relevant for language processing. It includes the posterior inferior frontal cortex, the superior temporal cortex, inferior parietal areas, the insula and cortico-cortical fibre bundles.

Somatotopy

A property of motor and somatosensory cortices whereby the spatial organization of adjacent body parts is preserved in representations in adjacent brain regions. Phonological somatotopy refers to the somatotopic representation of speech sounds in the motor areas of the articulator that produced the speech sounds. Semantic somatotopy is the mapping of action-related words to the motor areas representing the body parts typically involved in executing the action.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

A non-invasive method for focal cortical stimulation by means of a coil positioned on the scalp. It delivers brief, strong electric pulses. These create a local magnetic field, which induces a current in the surface of the cortex that temporarily changes local neural activity.

Neuropsychology

A scientific discipline studying the effects on behaviour of changes in neuronal function — caused, for example, by a brain lesion, magnetic stimulation, drugs or sensory stimulation.

Wernicke's region

The posterior perisylvian cortex, originally identified by the Polish–German neurologist Carl Wernicke as the area necessary for speech comprehension. Although definitions vary, Brodmann area 22 in the superior temporal cortex is usually included.

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Pulvermüller, F., Fadiga, L. Active perception: sensorimotor circuits as a cortical basis for language. Nat Rev Neurosci 11, 351–360 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2811

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